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What is fentanyl, and how is it made? CBS New York goes inside a DEA laboratory for answers about the national crisis

CBS New York goes inside a DEA lab for answers about the fentanyl crisis
CBS New York goes inside a DEA lab for answers about the fentanyl crisis 02:39

NEW YORK -- Fentanyl is a potent drug that can kill with even the smallest of doses, but what is fentanyl? How is it made, and what's being done to track the people smuggling it into our area?

CBS New York investigative reporter Tim McNicholas takes us inside a Drug Enforcement Administration laboratory for the answers.

What happens after the lights and sirens, after the undercover surveillance and the DEA raids? Chemistry. Seized drugs are tested at the DEA's Northeast Regional laboratory in Manhattan, and lab director Tom Blackwell says those chemists are staying busy.

When McNicholas visited, Blackwell said the lab had about 30,000 tablets containing fentanyl.

"How often is it that you get a haul in here like this?" McNicholas asked.

"This is like a daily occurrence for us, really," Blackwell said.

Blackwell showed us some of the pills and powder seized so far this year, including mixtures of fentanyl and other substances stamped with Snapchat logos or Pablo Escobar's face -- a trafficker's branding.

"There's people dying, unfortunately, and a lot of them happen to be kids. I mean, look at these multi-colored tablets here. It's a shame," Blackwell said. "It looks like candy and could easily be mistaken as such. That's probably part of the danger with it."

Last year, across the country, the DEA seized more than 59 million fentanyl-laced pills and 13,000 pounds of fentanyl powder.

And this year?

"The amount of seizures that we're experiencing today is far greater than what we were experiencing last year," said Frank Tarentino, special agent in charge of the DEA's New York Division.

Tarentino says most of the chemicals used to make the opioids are manufactured in China, then sent to Mexico. In fact, this month, the Justice Department announced fentanyl-related charges against three China-based companies.

Once the chemicals are in Mexico, they're synthesized in cartel labs, then smuggled and trafficked across the United States.

"Sometimes they'll hide 'em in backpacks, they'll hide 'em in cans of food, they'll hide 'em in sometimes toys that children often play with," Tarentino said.

The DEA shared images with CBS New York of fentanyl that was hidden in a toy box or in a gas tank.

As agents find new ways to crack down on traffickers, traffickers find new ways to smuggle, and every day, they're finding new victims.

"Seven out of 10 of these can carry a potentially lethal dose. One pill can kill," Blackwell said.

The DEA keeps Nacan in that lab just in case of an emergency. Thankfully, they've never had to use it.

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