Drug used to sedate elephants popping up in Houston; deadly carfentanil making its way into street drugs

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HOUSTON -- Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Houston Police Department Chief Art Acevedo and other city officials warned the public Tuesday about the dangers of opioids and how the deadly drugs are being pushed with epidemic- growing quickness right under our noses.

City officials spoke about the dangers of the drugs, and the extra precautions being put in place, for anyone who comes in contact with it.

"This drug has been under the radar, but the new seizure raises the opioid crisis in Houston to a new level not yet encountered in our city," Turner said.

On June 7, police found what they thought was methamphetamine while searching the home of a man who overdosed on fentanyl patches. At first, the substance tested positive for meth, but it actually turned out to be 80 milligrams of carfentanil, a drug used to sedate elephants.

"That much right there is enough for 4,000 lethal doses," Houston Forensics Science Center CEO and President Dr. Peter Stout said while holding up a small bag of sugar used to represent the drugs found. "This is why we're so worried about it, is because of the potency of this particular drug. It's only legitimate use is an elephant tranquilizer."

Investigators said fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin, has been causing overdoses in Houston and across the country. Carfentanil, even more potent, is 100 times stronger than fentanyl. Investigators explained that it can take up to six doses of Narcan, the antidote to opioid poisoning, to bring someone back from carfentanil.

"A lethal dose of this you can't even see. If you had it on your fingers, and you touched your mouth or you were in such a place that it could absorb through your skin, you could get a lethal dose and not even realize you've come into contact with it," Stout said.

Local and federal law enforcement officials are warning all first responders to be careful, double up on gloves while handling suspicious substances and always assume they could potentially be handling fentanyl, as a precaution.

"If we're this worried about people just handling this stuff, not ingesting it, not injecting it, not smoking it, none of that stuff -- just handling it, processing it -- you can imagine what dangers people that are out there actually using this stuff are in," Acevedo said.

And the bigger issue is that most people don't even know they are using it or where it came from.

"These drug trafficking organizations are importing pill presses. People on the streets may be looking at a pill and may be thinking to themselves, 'This is oxycodone, or this is alprazolam,'" said Paul Fortenberry of the Harris County District Attorney's Office.

"Much of it is being produced in rogue labs in China and either smuggled directly into Houston or by way of Mexico through the Mexican drug trafficking organizations," a DEA special agent said.

Locally, the Houston area has seen 20 cases of fentanyl-related drugs tested in the Houston crime lab within the last 18 months, and police have evidence that there were 23 fatal overdoses in 2016.

City officials are warning anyone who has, or knows someone who has, gotten addicted to prescription pills and moved on to the cheaper, easier to obtain synthetic drugs to stop immediately.

"If it's not coming from a pharmacy, a legitimate pharmacy, with a legitimate prescription, you're playing with your life," Acevedo said, cautioning users to remember, the next hit they take could, sadly, be their last.