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INSIDE LOOK: DEA Chicago testing lab for fentanyl-laced, fake prescription pills

Take a look inside a DEA forensic lab in Chicago, where these dangerous and deadly drugs are housed and analyzed for further investigations.

CHICAGO — The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is seizing more and more fentanyl-laced, fake prescription pills nationwide, as well as here in Michigan.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 107,622 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2021, with 66% of those deaths related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. 

The DEA Detroit Division seized more than 19 million deadly dosages of fentanyl pills and powder last year. 

13 ON YOUR SIDE got an exclusive look inside a DEA forensic lab in Chicago where these dangerous and deadly drugs are housed and analyzed for further investigations.

In a small, secured room inside the lab is where the DEA houses all of their evidence from 12 states in the Midwest.

The numerous samples on display were seized within the last year.

"We're talking a lot about the M30 counterfeit tablets containing fentanyl which we're seeing a huge uptick in those in the last few years," said Leah Law, a Supervisory Chemist with the DEA Chicago Lab.

There are also fake Adderall and ecstasy pills containing meth, Xanax with 'designer Benzodiazepine,' and heroin or fentanyl powder.

"It's sometimes difficult to tell they're not the real thing if you're not sure what you're looking at," said Law.

Most of the drugs analyzed years ago at the lab were cocaine, meth and heroin.

But that has changed as people started ordering chemicals through the dark web and internet.

The next step is that the pills are sent to the forensic lab for analysis. They're crushed up and then introduced to an instrument that can separate the individual components in the pill.

"And this is matching up with fentanyl," said one of the chemists. "We've done some studies throughout the DEA about M30s seized in exhibits that showed that six in 10 of the tablets contain over 2 milligrams of fentanyl which is that lethal dose."

There's no quality control measure as in the pharmaceutical industry so there's an inherent danger with taking these drugs.

"So if they kill a few people while making that dollar, they don't really care. It's all about making money," said Brian McNeal, a spokesperson for the DEA Detroit Division.

Most of the fentanyl killing Americans is trafficked by Mexican drug cartels who are getting chemicals sourced from China.

"If we were to find every drug dealer or drug trafficker, someone would come up and take their place."

McNeal says on top of putting away the street level dealer and the supplier, they must address the demand side for these pills.

That's why they've launched Operation Engage which connects field offices with the communities they serve, bringing awareness to drug use trends and prevention efforts.

"Something as simple as a 3 on-3 basketball tournament where you bring in young people and there's a job fair attachment," said McNeal. "We've had people come up to us and say, this is the first time I've hung out with law enforcement and it was cool. Little things like that, reaching out to the community, can make a world of difference." 

All in all, this evidence is turned into valuable information the DEA can use for enforcement or intelligence to mitigate the growing fentanyl crisis.

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