Inside the crime lab looking for pills laced with fentanyl

SEATTLE — People in the grip of opioid addiction don't just turn to heroin, but to pills like oxycodone.

They can be easily crushed then snorted or smoked.

But pills bought illegally are not always what they seem.

At the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab, forensic scientist Mark Strongman works to figure out what's really in pills seized by police.

He showed us the testing process that is increasingly discovering dangerous ingredients in pills that are stamped to look like pharmaceuticals.

"You just really can't tell from the look. You think you can and then you're surprised," Strongman said.

"We're starting to see an increase in mimic pharmaceuticals so they'll be stamped and look like a pharmaceutical grade oxycodone, but when it's actually tested, it's coming out as fentanyl or heroin," said Mary Kellar of the State Patrol.

"Counterfeit opioids are of major concern to the DEA, especially fentanyl," said Keith Weis, the special agent in charge of the DEA's Seattle division.

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Weis said fentanyl often comes from China to clandestine laboratories in Mexico, where pills are pressed and then smuggled into the U.S. to be sold cheaply.

"Anytime we encounter it on the street, it's a major concern," Weis said.

In April, investigators in Centralia intercepted a truck hauling a load of Starbucks products.

Stuffed in the sleeper cab, agents say they found meth, heroin and several thousand oxycodone pills.

Agents also raided a home in Kennewick last week as part of an investigation of fentanyl-laced drugs.

The DEA estimates the illicit drug market in Washington State is worth $2 billion dollars.

Because fentanyl is a synthetic opioid up to 50 times more powerful than heroin, more people are dying of overdoses.

Public Health Seattle and King County reports 23 fentanyl-related deaths in 2016, 33 in 2017, and 17 just in the first three months of 2018.

"We probably lose three or more people in the state every day from overdoses," Weis said.