'Devastating' fentanyl: A look inside a DEA testing lab

FOX 11 recently got to take a look inside a secret Southern California Drug Enforcement Agency lab to better understand how the opioid crisis is affecting the region.

In the lab, drugs obtained in DEA seizures are tested, including fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid responsible for many overdose deaths across the country. Just two milligrams, less than the fraction of the size of a penny, can kill an adult. For children who are smaller, a much smaller dose can also be fatal.

"Young people are being deceived," said Special Agent in Charge Bill Bodner. "They're seeking out prescription drugs like oxycodone like Xanax like Percocet, and the drug they're actually being sold is fentanyl.

Investigators say that's what happened in the case of 15-year-old Melanie Ramos. Her body was found in the bathroom of Helen Bernstein High School. Another 15-year-old student from one of the school's independent charters was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter for allegedly selling Ramos the fentanyl-laced pill that led to her death.

"There is definitely a concerted effort by Sinaloa Cartel, Jalisco New Generation Cartel, to market drugs that look less threatening," said Bodner, like brightly-colored pills that look like candy. In a recent raid, the DEA seized more than 250,000 pills of fentanyl, each potent enough to kill one person. 

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"They're very easy for the drug cartels to produce… and it's really devastating us like no drug has in my time," Bodner said.

The lab FOX 11 visited sees million-pill seizures every week. And that's just what gets through the border. More than 8,500 pounds of fentanyl pills were seized at the border in the first nine months of 2022. Meanwhile, the DEA seized 10 million fentanyl pills between May and September 2022.

And while fentanyl is the big concern, mixing the drug can also cause catastrophe.

"We're seeing these we're calling them ‘drug cause death clusters,’ a place where we'll see five, six, seven people overdose in one weekend in one area from a drug," Bodner said. "Generally that's caused by either fentanyl mixed with cocaine, or fentanyl mistaken for cocaine."

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Testing at the lab is done with special chemicals under a safety hood. Techs wear protective gear for even the tiniest samples, and keep Narcan close by in case of exposures.

"Fentanyl powder is very ‘fluffy’ I like to describe it," said one technician. "It's like powdered sugar, when you open a bag of powdered sugar and it goes everywhere." The testing is used to determine what's in a given sample and in what quantities. In a bag of fentanyl pills, the concentration can vary drastically from pill to pill.

"We're at a place now where we've never been before," Bodner said. "We used to encourage people not to take drugs. Why? Because there was the fear of addiction. If you use a drug today, you could die today."