Pills laced with fentanyl and pushed by drug cartels ‘worst threat’ DEA agent has seen in 25 years

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Jon Delana, inset, during the recent DEA “Operation Engage” presentation for Manchester businesses. Image/Pat Grossmith

MANCHESTER, NH – Drug cartels used New Hampshire as a test market for fentanyl about seven years ago, resulting in an explosion of overdose deaths in the state, according to Jon DeLena, DEA Associate Special Agent in Charge, New England Field Division.

In 2021, the state continues to struggle with the opiate epidemic, although DeLena said the number of deaths has leveled off.  

Now the drug cartels, he said, are at it again but this time they are “coming after all our children,” selling pills that look exactly like Adderal or Xanax but that are packed with methamphetamine and fentanyl.

Last March, drug dealers began selling the fake pills in pairs – one contains fentanyl, the other methamphetamine.   

“If you are buying these drugs on the streets of New Hampshire now, everything we’re seizing today on the streets comes back as being laced with fentanyl or methamphetamine. I’ve never seen an explosion like it.  We went from none to every single day I get notified of another significant seizure,” he said.

Once the foreign traffickers began packaging the drugs in pill form, local dealers began doing the same thing, he said. Buyers never know what they are getting.  DeLena said 26 percent of the pills tested contain a lethal dose – one in four pills.  

Last week, DeLena reached out in an online presentation to a group of Manchester business people as part of the DEA’s initiative called “Operation Engage.”  The program calls for the local DEA division to make businesses and others aware of the drug threats to their community.  Manchester is one of 11 cities selected across the country to connect with local police departments, health departments, non-profits, and others to work together to address the opiate epidemic.

DeLena focused his presentation on what “has turned our communities upside down and inside out.”

The drug cartels want to attract as many people as possible – including those who would never use – and are now putting the drugs in pill form, he said.

“That is how the opiate crisis began, the over-prescribing of opiates.  We’ve done a good job in this country of cracking down on that by educating doctors and pharmacists.”

The drug cartels decided if we were going to do that, then they were going to start packing the drugs in pill form, he said.

They are also doing it because, DeLena said, they’re greedy.

2016 file photo of DEA ASAC Jon Delena, left, with now-retired NH State Police Forensic lab director Tim Pifer and retired DEA Special Agent Jack Riley, known for investigating Mexican and Colombian cartels and drug-related gang violenceI. File Photo/NHSP

“They can make more money selling pills.  The only reason is because they are driven by greed.  Truly, this is the worst threat I’ve seen in 25 years with the DEA.  It is insidious that these drug trafficking organizations are making pills…that look just like Adderall and put nothing but crystal methamphetamine inside them,” he said.

It is particularly troubling, he said, because it is college, high school and middle age children who are prescribed Adderall and who use them illegally.  They are also the same age group using the drugs illegally.

Drug dealers, he said, are handing out methamphetamine samples to their customers buying fentanyl.

“They are telling them to use this along with the fentanyl; when low on opiates and need something to get up and take care of the kids or go to work,” use the meth, he said.  “What they really mean is, come back and buy more drugs.  This is no conjecture on my part.  It is backed up by investigations we do.  We are seizing more methamphetamine in the history of the DEA.” 

In the year ending in September 2020, DeLena said a “staggering” 90,237 Americans died of drug overdoses.

“We will never reach a number in this country that will cause these transnational drug cartels to change what they’re doing,” he said.  “If that number climbed to 100,000 or 150,000 the cartels at the highest level are never going to meet to say we’ve got to stop what we’re doing.  That’s never going to happen. 

All the DEA’s resources, he said, have been stretched thin because of the COVID-19 pandemic yet the cartels are unaffected.

“What they are really good at is identifying vulnerabilities,” he said.  “They see what is going on in this country and, in response to that, they’ve doubled and tripled their efforts in trying to send more drugs into this country than ever before.”

What is alarming about that, he said, is the “conscious decision on the part of these cartels to push more methamphetamine into this country.”

Fentanyl, he said, changed everything in the state.  “New Hampshire was at the forefront of the epidemic.  It truly was the test market and it changed the way business is done for these organizations and as a result, we lost way too many people,” DeLena said.

Fentanyl became the drug of choice for dealers because one kilo can be converted into eight kilos, significantly increasing profits.  “So if you are a small business owner and I tell you I know a way to make your product eight times what it is, think of the profit margin,” DeLena said.  

He said there’s always been a meth problem in NH, particularly in the North Country and it usually catches the DEA’s notice when there is an explosion while someone is making it.  In those instances, he said, the yield is small.

The cartels, on the other hand, are churning out tons in days.

A few years ago, he, along with other DEA agents and law enforcement officers went to Sinaloa, Mexico, and saw a cartel’s drug laboratory.

Meth lab in Mexico. Image/DEA

“I’ve never seen anything like it,”   DeLena said at the time. “We’re talking about a laboratory in the middle of the jungle that was producing 7 tons of crystal methamphetamine every 3 days.”

Those drugs were heading for New England.

“They are the ones who have decided it is time for the people of NH to use meth,” DeLena said.  “They are marketing geniuses.”

Until this change in marketing, he said the meth and opiate cultures were two completely different things and didn’t come together.

Federal probation officers in New Hampshire report seeing a 200 percent increase in probationers doing this; nationally, the rate is a 30 percent increase.

“So New Hampshire is exploding,” DeLena said.

Another alarming factor is that the meth investigators are seizing is testing at 99 to 100 percent pure.

“We’ve never seen anything like that,” he said. “That’s a game-changer.”

New Hampshire remains among the top five states with the highest rate of opioid-involved deaths, according to the National Institutes of Health.  Through July 14, 2021, there have been 118 confirmed drug deaths, with another 96 pending toxicology. The vast majority – 93 – of the confirmed deaths involved fentanyl alone or fentanyl combined with other drugs, according to the Office of Chief Medical Examiner.

Methamphetamine, as a factor in overdose deaths, has been steadily climbing since 2016 when 13 people died.  Last year, 59 people died from overdoses involving methamphetamine – 11 solely meth, 44 a combination of meth and opioid(s) and 4 died from a combination of meth and other drugs (non-opioids.)

Through July 14 of this year, methamphetamine overdoses have taken the lives of 16 people; three were caused solely by meth and 13 were from a combination of meth and opioid(s).

In 2011 in New Hampshire, there were 201 overdose deaths, according to the Office of Chief Medical Examiner.  Three years later, there were 342.  As fentanyl became the drug of choice, that number climbed to 490 in 2017 before leveling off to 415 and 416 in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

“New Hampshire celebrated leveling off of OD deaths, the rest of New England and the U.S. can’t speak to that,” DeLena said.

A major reason for that is New Hampshire enacted a state law that allowed for the over-the-counter sale of Narcan or Naxolone, a medication called an “opioid antagonist” which counters the effects of an opioid overdose.

Businesses can get Narcan kits for free at any of the nine Doorways in NH, according to the Governor’s office.  Businesses can find more information about how to support people recovering from substance use disorder through New Hampshire’s  Recovery Friendly Workplace Initiative at www.recoveryfriendlyworkplace.com .


About this Author

Pat Grossmith

Pat Grossmith is a freelance reporter.