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Fentanyl: Cartels pushing deadly painkiller through San Diego

SAN DIEGO - Mexican drug cartels who`ve long targeted San Diego have discovered a new source of revenue.

They are importing a drug that`s cheap to make, comes from China and is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

Fentanyl is a very powerful pain reliever. It’s typically given only to severe cases of chronic pain or for terminal diseases. According to Drug Enforcement Administration, clandestine fentanyl is showing up on the streets of San Diego. It's a powder that is then mixed with other drugs.

The cartels are smuggling fentanyl in both a powder form and cutting it with pills, and then sneaking pills across the border. Those pills are manufactured to look like OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, and Xanax, only they are in reality, drugs far stronger and deadlier.

“In terms of danger level, opioids are bad, heroin is worse and Fentanyl is the worst,” said DEA agent Tom Lenox. “When these pills hit the street and you as an addict think you`re taking Oxy, and you take 10 pills, it’s very likely they could contain Fentanyl, and just one of those pills could kill you.”

Fentanyl gained national coverage when pop singer Prince overdosed on it.

A few months later, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S Customs and Border Protection made two big busts of counterfeit Fentanyl at San Ysidro border crossing.

In the spring of 2016, they found 1,000 pills that contained Fentanyl, but were disguised as OxyContin. Four months later, they confiscated a shipment of 6,000 pills.

“Some of these pills when they`re seized and they`ve been analyzed by our lab, a single pill contains a lethal dose of Fentanyl,” said Lenox.

Unlike other opioids, Fentanyl is so powerful, it can take two to three doses of Naloxone, the drug to reverse an overdose. The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department is the only department to constantly carry the nasal spray, but other agencies, including the San Diego Police Department are looking at getting it, not only to help addicts who overdose, but officers who could be exposed to Fentanyl during a drug bust. The drug is so powerful, even inhaling some of the powder can lead to hospitalization.

SDPD Lt. Matt Novak heads up the department's narcotics unit, which covers street teams that target mid-level drug dealers.

"Unfortunately, it probably is just a matter of time before we see a little more of it,” said Novak. “Within the last six months, one of the most dangerous opioids we`ve seen come across is Fentanyl.”

Statistics from the San Diego County Medical Examiner support his statement.

Twenty-two people died from Fentanyl in the county last year, compared to 16 in 2015 and 11 the year before.

Most drugs are also measured in milligrams. Fentanyl, because it`s so powerful, is measured in micrograms, meaning the cartels can crank out more product and rake in more cash.