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Fentanyl in the Mail: Opioids Are Arriving in Ohio from Overseas

A forensic analyst at the Lake County Crime Laboratory handles a sample of an opioid in powder form. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
A forensic analyst at the Lake County Crime Laboratory handles a sample of an opioid in powder form.

Opioids are flowing into Ohio in a way that would be familiar to anyone who’s shopped online. People are placing orders on the internet, and having packages of fentanyl delivered to their doors, according to law enforcement. 

Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner Thomas Gilson is scheduled to testify at Capitol Hill this week in a hearing on imported opioids convened by U.S. Sen. Rob Portman.

‘Our Numbers Have Just Gone Through the Roof’

At the Lake County Crime Laboratory in Painesville, analysts test drug samples from police searches and overdose scenes. The opiates come in all forms, including in powder, in rocks and in syringes.

It’s forensic analyst Bill Koubek’s job to run the substances through a machine called a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer. He described it as “a big oven.” It helps him determine what’s in the samples.

“If there’s multiple things in that powder, say heroin and fentanyl, it’ll separate those out,” Koubek said.

These are potent drugs. Lab workers take precautions against direct contact. The overdose antidote Narcan is kept on hand, just in case.

“We wear gloves at all times when we’re handling evidence,” Koubek said. “We wear masks to make sure we don’t breathe in anything, any powders that go up into the air.”

Douglas Rohde says the Lake County Crime Laboratory has examined mailed opioids with return addresses in Hong Kong and Singapore. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

Douglas Rohde, the supervisor of chemistry and toxicology at the lab, recalled a time not long ago when he worked 20 days straight to keep up with the caseload.

“Our numbers have just gone through the roof for drug submissions,” Rohde said.

Heroin and prescription fentanyl aren’t the only drugs coming through crime labs anymore. Now labs across the state are detecting alternative forms of fentanyl manufactured for illegal distribution, according to Tom Stickrath, the superintendent of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

“It used to be that we would see fentanyl that was taken from prescriptions,” Stickrath said. “But now we see that made in a clandestine fashion.”

Analysts at the Lake County Crime Laboratory use a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer to identify the substances found in drug samples. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

Fentanyl Arriving in the Mail from Overseas

In Lake County, Douglas Rohde said he can’t tell by examining a drug where it was made. But there’s evidence at least some of the substances are coming in the mail from overseas.

“We have had submissions here where the return label is Hong Kong...and we know that individuals are ordering the drugs directly from China,” he said.

A 2016 report from the Drug Enforcement Administration identified chemical labs in China as the “primary source” of fentanyl sent to North America. Some shipments go directly to the U.S. Others go to Mexico and Canada before being smuggled across the border.

The amount of fentanyl processed in U.S. crime labs grew 65 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to the DEA.

“I get a call probably two or three times a week from our postal folks saying, hey we got another package, it’s this synthetic drug this time, it’s this derivative of fentanyl,” said Joseph Pinjuh, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio.

Still, tracking mailed fentanyl can be difficult.

“You would think it would be easy, right? It’s in the mail, we kind of control the mail, we control the delivery of the mail,” Pinjuh said. “But it’s so voluminous. If you think of just the normal packages that come to the United States on a daily basis from a county like China, that’s producing all the things that they produce, it’s not easy.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Pinjuh says the volume of mail entering the country makes it difficult to intercept fentanyl.

This year, a man in Massillon and another in North Ridgeville were charged in connection with fentanyl shipments from overseas. An Akron man received a 20-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to charges that included fentanyl distribution. Prosecutors said he ordered it from China, and sold an amount that caused a fatal overdose.

Steve Francis, the acting the acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Michigan and Ohio, said investigators don’t need a warrant to open international packages. And overseas deliveries, he said, are going to a wide range of people.

“What we’ve seen thus far in Ohio is all of the above,” Francis said. “We’ve seen users, we’ve seen sellers, we’ve seen transnational criminal organizations that are ordering them.”

Overdose deaths involving fentanyl surged in Cuyahoga County last year. The county medical examiner reports cases in which it’s mixed with heroin or cocaine. Deaths in 2017 are projected to exceed last year’s numbers. 

Ohio leads the nation in fentanyl lab tests, according to the DEA. It’s a phenomenon that puzzles law enforcement.

“That reasoning still escapes us, why Ohio is number one,” Joseph Pinjuh, the assistant U.S. attorney, said. “More Fentanyl overdose deaths, more seizures, more of the synthetic stuff that’s coming in across the mail. Really Ohio, and especially Northeast Ohio, is really ground zero for the fentanyl problem right now.” 

An earlier version of the story quoted Douglas Rohde as saying drug samples had a return address in Singapore. Rohde later clarified he meant to say Shanghai. 

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.