Heroin laced with large animal tranquilizer carfentanil tied to 5 Minnesota deaths

A spate of Minnesota overdoses tracked back to a dangerous new drug has Minneapolis Police worried for the future of their fight against the pervasive opioid crisis currently roiling the state.

Several state and federal agencies held a press conference in Minneapolis Thursday outlining the rise of a new opioid called carfentanil, which the Drug Enforcement Administration claims is 100 times more potent than fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine. The drug is used as a tranquilizer for large animals.

"For example, an 8,000 pound elephant can be incapacitated by just two milligrams of Carfentanil," Medical Director of the Minnesota Poison Control System Jon Cole said. "Using [opioids] alone is much more dangerous than it may have been in the past." 

Most medical labs are not equipped to test for the new drug, police say, but an investigation through multiple state agencies revealed carfentanil to be the source of five recent fatal overdoses--the first recorded in the Twin Cities area. Four more deaths due to carfentanil are suspected, but data on those cases is still pending.

Twin Cities law enforcement says these incidents are particularly worrying because victims most likely don't know what they're ingesting until it's too late. Carfentanil usually comes mixed with and labeled as heroin or fentanyl, and as with most drugs there's no way to truly know what you're buying.

"It’s so strong that there’s no way you can dilute [carfentanil] enough to make it safe enough for human consumption," DEA Assistant Special Agent Ken Solek said. "A couple specks of salt would be enough to incapacitate an elephant ... even less will kill a human."

The drug comes in many forms, including powder, blotter paper, tablets, patches and even a spray. 

Investigators say much of the carfentanil originates in China and comes into the United States through a variety of channels, including dark web sites and more traditional South and Central American cartel smuggling routes, though it's hard to know how exactly this batch came to the Twin Cities.

"This could be a one-time incident," Solek said. "Someone could have gotten a hold of something they shouldn't have on the internet one time and exposed people. We don't know what it is yet."