By Mark Gutglueck
The fentanyl overdose death of an Upland High student last weekend entailed elements that virtually all of those involved in the fatality, even at the most removed and indirect levels, are loathe to have fully explored for a variety of reasons, from potential criminal culpability to political correctness to philosophical discomfort to deep personal grief. Simultaneously, family members, school district officials and police investigators are all stymied by questions about what occurred, what responses are appropriate and socially acceptable and how much information can and should be released. Consideration extends to the balance between the courtesy of being respectful to family members grieving their loss versus the necessity of making efforts to prevent the victim’s misfortune from being visited upon others.
At once the victim in this case was similar and profoundly different from others, one who was born female but in the last several years had become persuaded that he was more properly identified as male. With the apparent concurrence of her parents, she began a transition as early as the fifth grade to being a man, using a variety of hormones and chemicals, including testosterone, to suppress her female traits and adopt or take on male characteristics.Unknown is the degree to which the incorporation of chemicals and drugs into his existence had bridged him into a lifestyle in which chemical alteration/enhancement was a routine reality, one that led to a far too casual use of controlled substances, including the fentanyl that killed him.
Paralleling this rather uncommon circumstance was the phenomenon at large throughout American society, that being the pervasive availability of fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is much more powerful than the traditionally-used refinements of opium such as morphine, heroin, Norco, Vicodin, oxycodone or the oxycodone/acetaminophen combination known as percocet.
First synthesized in 1960 and made available for medical use in the United States in 1968, the strict standardization applied by pharmaceutical companies in its processing into usable forms and protocols relating to its prescription by physicians was intended to prevent the substance, which is on the order of 50 times more potent than heroin by weight and 100 times more potent than morphine by weight, from proving fatal. So powerful are its effect that Fentanyl can prove deadly in very minute quantities.
For some three-and-a-half decades it was used, primarily beneficially, in the medical world and became accepted as an essential medicine in the arenas of obstetrics, the management of pain and chronic pain, and as both a regional/transdermal/palliative anesthetic and general anesthetic and for patients with an intolerance or allergies to natural opoiods.
Roughly a decade and-a-half ago, illicit chemists/drug manufacturers discovered that the production of Fentanyl could be an extremely profitable undertaking, as it could be used in a highly diluted form when blended with buffers to replicate heroin, morphine, oxycodone, Vicodin, Norco or percoset. Moreover, drug dealers began mixing it with other narcotics such as cocaine, methamphetamine and benzodiazepines for a variation on those popular street drugs.
At issue is the poor quality control often involved in such manufacturing or assembly efforts.
The drug most closely comparable to Fentanyl is heroin. The quality of heroin varies, as the traditional names of the substance – known scientifically as diacetylmorphine and diamorphine – can indicate, such as black tar, Mexican brown or China white can indicate. Making it ever more complicated is that the unregulated and illegal market in heroin results in typical heroin bought on the street varying in purity anywhere between 30 percent to 70 percent. Thus, a heroin user who has adjusted to having a habit will use about 10 to 20 milligrams of pure heroin for each dose or fix. The estimated lethal dose of heroin ranges from 30 mg in an uninitiated adult user to 500 mg in those who have built up a tolerance for the substance, although there is indication that an uninitiated adult user with no opiate tolerance can, in rare circumstances, suffer a fatal overdose on as little as 15 milligrams of heroin.
As deadly as heroin is, fentanyl is far more dangerous. According to the best research available, in half of the adult population, ingesting 2 milligrams of fentanyl would prove lethal. For illustrative purposes, fentanyl and salt are similar in weight. Each grain of salt weighs approximately .0585 of a milligram. Thus there are roughly 17.094 grains of salt in a milligram. In this way, consuming as little fentanyl in a quantity comparable to about 34.2 grains of salt will kill the average adult.
Illicit manufacturers in recent years have taken to pressing minute quantities of fentanyl into counterfeit representations of valium, Xanax, oxycodone or Percoset by finding a binder, i.e., a buffer, that is similar in color and all other respects to the binders used by licensed pharmaceutical companies in their production of those aforementioned drugs. The pills are then stamped with the markings of those various drugs.
In some cases, quality control with some pirate editions of these drugs is more exacting and sophisticated than in others.
More sophisticated operations use a methodology of blending the fentanyl in a way that it is evenly distributed within the binder. In some cases, the fentanyl is encased in mini-gel capules that break down at differing rates when they come into contact with stomach acid to provide a time-release effect, stretching the effectiveness of the drug gradually over as many as eight hours.
In less sophisticated operations, the pills are pressed from a binder gruel into which the fentanyl has been sprinkled as opposed to having been blended. Those pills can have clumps of fentanyl in quantities that approach or exceed a lethal fentanyl dose. If two or more such clumps are found in a single pill, the outcome for the person who takes that pill can be fatal.
The method of using or ingesting the fentanyl that comes in this pill form can vary. It appears that the lion’s share of those who purchase fentanyl-containing pills, be they colored and stamped to replicate Valium, Zanax, Oxycodone, Vicodin, Norco or Percoset, are ingested orally. That is not always the case, however. Some grind the pills into as fine of a powder as they can and snort, that is inhale, the pulverized particles, including the fentanyl and the binder, allowing the drug to be absorbed by the mucus membranes of their nasal tissue, their sinuses or through eventual passage to their throats and clear down their esophaguses to their stomachs. Others disassemble or crush the pills, loading them into a spoon and using heat from a torch, candle or match to separate, as best they can, the fentanyl from the medium in which it is contained and then use a syringe with a retractable plunger to sipon the melted fentanyl with its different relative density, leaving the binder in the spoon and to then slam, that is inject, the fentanyl into a vein or artery.
Growing up around the fentanyl culture, indeed intrinsic to it, is a means of distribution that is as newfangled and inventive as postmodern life permits. Whereas in generations past, drugs were sold to end users by drug dealers and drug pushers who quite often worked the streets and had immediate contact with their customers, that is no longer necessarily the case.
The stereotypical imagraphy of an addict scoring a packet of dope in sleazy alleyway that would be common among the parents or grandparents of today’s younger crop of fentanyl users is hardly applicable when it comes to purchasing fentanyl. Those selling the drug today typically make use of social media to communicate with or even advertise to or recruit possible customers and make or close deals. There yet exist small time dealers, limited to a confined geographical location. There are traffickers, as well, with business of immense proportion, operating regionally or across multiple states, indeed in some cases, from coast to coast.
One can purchase fentanyl from an entrepreneur without knowing him or her, ever meeting or seeing or talking directly with the supplier or even as much as knowing his or her identity or real name.
Arrangements for such sales are typically done by means of social media – Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or forums of that nature. Snapchat is considered particularly suited to making such interactions because of its encryption and a feature that allows for the erasure/disappearance of previously sent or received messages.
In some cases, that a deal for the sale of fentanyl or some type of drug is explicitly dealt with and laid out in the exchange. In others, a code is used, one that uses terminology that those who are not involved in the culture would be unlikely to understand. One example of this is the reference or name used to describe a fentanyl dealer or supplier: plug. Another is the way Xanax is identified: bars.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration employs investigators to stay abreast, or at least try to stay abreast, of the underground world of drug use and the ever-evolving nature of what users seek and the tactics used by the mercenaries who are looking to enrich themselves by supplying those doing the seeking. In many cases, the market is driven by the product that those entrepreneurs have settled on providing, the innovations being made with regard to which drugs are being blended into a concoction that users will buy.
Similarly, those investigators are attempting to chart the networks supplying the ingredients. It would appear that a good amount of the fentanyl itself originates overseas. China, which two centuries ago found itself being exploited by English and American seafarers delivering opium grown in the Near East to Chinese tongs or gangs in clandestine operations along the expansive Chinese coast, is the host for chemists whose laboratories are now returning the favor, manufacturing tons of fentanyl, enough to kill every man, woman and child in America, and that product is being smuggled into the U.S.A. Some of the pills containing fentanyl are pressed and stamped in China. Raw fentanyl, as well, is shipped to the United States, imported through various ways, including disguised as other types of goods offloaded at U.S. ports.
In addition to trying to break those international tongs, the Drug Enforcement Agency has interested itself in the domestic U.S. operators who are receiving that contraband and delivering it through their own networks to end users.
DEA agents more than two years ago learned that those dealers – the plugs – were using social media in a big way to make their wares available to buyers. Through these electronic communications, arrangements for delivery, using courier services such as Federal Express, United Parcel Service, DHL and the like and sometimes even the United States Postal Service would be finalized. Payment using credit cards, debit cards, PayPal, forms of cryptocurrency, Due, American Express, Payoneer, GoPayment and Payza among others are typically used.
An indicator of how fentanyl users, primarily young ones across the United States, are getting it through online arrangements are lawsuits that have been filed, claiming, in the language of one of those, that Snapchat has “encouraged, enabled, and facilitated the illegal and deadly drug sales of counterfeit pills containing lethal doses of fentanyl to minors and young adults.”
Starting with a few select cases in which a fentanyl user lost his life through an overdose, the Drug Enforcement Agency and other local agencies sought to trace out the sources for that fentanyl. Consequent to that was establishing the victim’s connection with the seller of that fentanyl, including the arrangements through social media for those sales.
Given the constitutional protections guaranteed to all Americans, demanding that entities such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram turn over the communications of all of their users so that agents could mine them for instances of arrangements for the sale of fentanyl was unworkable. Moreover, social media platforms have been able to effectively cite Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to assert that they cannot be construed as responsible for any content, harmful or not that was posted through their forums or sites by or among third parties.
What was done, at least in a handful of cases where probable cause could be demonstrated, was a warrant from a judge was obtained to access the social media accounts of those who had died from a fentanyl overdose. By examining those communications, dealers or plugs could be identified. In many of the cases, the social media companies resisted, delaying the ultimate provision of that information to investigators. Nevertheless, in some cases, the sought-after communications were obtained.
Incrementally, more and more is being learned about the vast underground network of fentanyl distribution across the United States.
What occurred over the weekend in Upland, while unbearably sad for the student’s family, offers a real opportunity for law enforcement investigators to trace out the network of fentanyl dealers and the specifics of the fentanyl supply chain and its delivery system that led to this particular death.
The victim, identified to the Sentinel by his first name, Tyler, was a prolific user of social media and communication platforms and his smart communications device has come into the possession of the Upland Police Department, the Sentinel has learned. The information and data to be gleaned from that phone could, professional investigators told the Sentinel, allow authorities to make adequate demonstrations of probable cause to obtain warrants which will very likely lead them up a path to essentially reverse engineer the elaborate but obscure means by which sellers and buyers of the illicit and deadly substance communicate, the code they use and the means of distribution employed. Paradoxically, while the stealthy methodology of communication involving dealers and users who employ the ultramodern social platforms that are seeming second nature to the younger set allows their activity to stay below the radar of parents, teachers and law enforcement authorities in normal circumstances, that dark chamber upon being unlocked as it has been now with the death of the Upland High School student leaves exposed to the sunlight a virtual blueprint for how a very toxic element of the underground economy functions. This has potential to lead to an ever widening network of wholesale fentanyl supply, one that goes much further than Upland, San Bernardino County or even Southern California, and very likely lies across state and perhaps even international borders.
Meanwhile, in Upland, the loss, at the familial level and among those who knew Tyler, is incalculable and inexpressible.
Questions attend what befell him. He was a heavy testosterone user. Rare but still potential side effects from testosterone injection include irritability and depression. While it is possible that last week Tyler had fallen into a psychological trough, one from which he sought escape by the painless exit from life that fentanyl offered, that does not seem to be the case. Those close to him detected no such clouds over him. Had he fallen into a temporary funk and upped the previous dosages of fentanyl he was accustomed to overcome that depression? That question at this stage is likely never to be answered.
A precious human life has been ended prematurely, one that held tremendous promise. To note that Tyler had fully transitioned into manhood, working out six days a week to develop a physique that the lion’s share of his male-born classmates envied does not capture what his intensity was. Nor will referencing his virtual straight A academic record capture his character. Lost forever, except in the minds of those who remember him, is his determination to be what he knew himself to be. His life has been taken and the lives of those around him have been tormentingly reduced by the scourge of the silent fentanyl epidemic.
By Mark Gutglueck