Poison in a Packet: Keeping synthetic drugs out of the U.S. - Part 2

Back in May, the federal government carried out a huge synthetic drug takedown in 29 states, but the battle against these drugs continues. Criminals are still getting the drugs into communities, including Michiana.

Newscenter’s Gabby Gonzalez went to Chicago to look into what Customs and Border Patrol officers are doing to stop the influx.
Synthetic drug dealers are actually turning to mailing these substances. They are getting creative by hiding the drugs in tinfoil, paper, or even balloons, hoping that officers won't be able to detect the drugs during regular screenings.

As a result, mail facilities are stepping up screening procedures and turning to science to keep synthetic drugs from hitting the streets.

The sounds of incoming flights can be heard from the government's screening facility at O'Hare International Airport.

The officers here are tasked with protecting the nation at all levels, but the focus here is on the sky. Strict guidelines determine what mail gets through to its final destination and what mail gets seized.

During our visit, they found fake IDs, pills, a weapon, and even drugs. U.S. Customs and Border Protection Chief Brian Bell has come across plenty of contraband.

"Not a day goes by that we don't find something," he said.

Synthetic drugs are becoming a growing problem for them.

"Here at Chicago O'Hare, we're seeing synthetics come through on a daily basis,” Bell said. “Anywhere between a few grams to a few pounds. This is an epidemic that we need to get under control.”

This facility gets more than one million packages each year. This is the first line of defense.

In a back room , there are carts full of packages that contain synthetic drugs. Bell quickly finds one package with an Indiana address. A quick look inside the seized package reveals the senders true intentions.

“Includes black mamba ultra, described as novelty collector's item ‘not for human consumption,” Bell said. “Tthey'll mark it that way to get away with importation.”

Simply identifying these drugs proved to be a challenge itself, at first.

“We couldn't figure out why someone would ship these little things of potpourri,” Bell said. “These little spice packages. They never tested it positive in our kits. We gave it to a lab, did some research and identified it as HU210. Substance coming out of Europe.”

They brought in a mobile lab to battle this new substance.

“A mobile lab person will come out and do field tests because the synthetics don't test in our normal drug testing kits like heroin, cocaine or marijuana,” Bell said.

Right next door, Neelie Shepard, as senior chemist, is testing what appears to be a synthetic drug.

“We only need a small amount of sample,” she said.

An infrared instrument inspects the substance and searches the database. A result pops up in just a matter of minutes.

“We do have a hit,” Shepard said. “It matched the spectrum, this is synthetic cannabinoid.

“Compared to the previous ten years just looking at heroine cocaine and meth, we did not have a lot of variety,” Shepard said. “Now, we're getting a new substance every week or two.”

It's not just the final product being mailed into the U.S.

“We have parcel going to another individual in Indiana...this is the raw chemical,” Bell sad. “So this person intends on actually making it.”

A small quantity of the raw chemical can make pounds of the end product, according to Bell.

Bell says the people manufacturing this stuff don't take many precautions.

“We're talking chemicals made in back rooms, not a lot of science in this,” Bell said. “We're not talking clean rooms. Most of the time it's done in somebody's kitchen on a cookie sheet. You wind up with something that can have no effect or cause immediate death.”

It's that unpredictability that's led the federal government to track down who is involved. The names on the seized parcels offer them their first lead.

“If you're getting this, you can expect a knock on your door,” Bell said.

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