THE FENTANYL FALLOUT:  Wyoming Poised for Record Fentanyl Seizures in 2023

Small traces of new lethal variant containing animal tranquilizer detected in state

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth


CHEYENNE, Wyo.—As the Biden Administration announced that it will devote more resources to counteracting the flow of illicit fentanyl into American communities, Wyoming law enforcement is grappling with a record number of fentanyl seizures throughout the state with a new, even more potent variant containing an animal tranquilizer having been recently detected.

The drug samples seized by law enforcement go through an elaborate testing process at the Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigation’s chemistry lab in the agency’s Cheyenne office. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher) 

The Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigations (DCI) crime lab has seized 185 samples testing positive for illicit fentanyl as of March 31. Based on this average, the number of seizures could soar to 740 by the end of the year, according to figures provided by DCI. This would amount to a 156% increase over last year’s 289 seizures.

Already, DCI has tested more illicit fentanyl in the first four months of 2023 than the agency did between 2016 to 2021 combined. By comparison, seven samples tested positive for illicit fentanyl in 2016 and then remained in the double digits until 2021, when the number jumped to 105.

The influx of the drug is also taxing law enforcement, prompting the Wyoming Highway Patrol to increase the number of drug-detecting K-9s from one to 10.

Ronnie Jones, former DCI Operations Commander for southwest Wyoming and incoming new director of the agency, confirmed there is a huge increase in illicit fentanyl crossing state borders, but declined to elaborate on how it’s arriving or from where.

“It’s generally in illicit pill form or mixed with other drugs,” Jones said. “People don’t even know what they’re getting.”

In fact, the uncontrolled dosages are ramping up safety concerns for the agents out in the field who handle the illicit drugs, Jones said, because the drugs are unregulated and unpredictable.

“Same goes for the public,” he said. “People are ingesting things without knowing what they’re getting. It’s such a dangerous drug. There’s no way to know.”

The fentanyl turning up in Wyoming and elsewhere has become more potent and dangerous, Jones noted.

He said it’s too early to know what Biden’s announcement might mean for Wyoming regarding increased funding to help crack down on the illicit substance.

The DCI crime lab has seized 185 samples testing positive for illicit fentanyl as of the end of March. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher) 

Despite the record number of fentanyl seizures in the past 24 months, the drug accounts for only about 7% of the evidence samples tested in the DCI lab this year. Delta-9 THC, the intoxicant found in marijuana, represents the lion’s share of the seized drugs at 45%. The second most popular is methamphetamine, representing 36% of the drugs processed through the chemistry lab, according to DCI figures.

What is illicit fentanyl? 

Legal fentanyl is a synthetic opioid used to help treat patients with chronic severe pain or following surgeries. It’s similar to morphine but 100 times more potent. Illicit fentanyl, by contrast, is primarily manufactured in clandestine labs and mixed with cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin to increase potency. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the drug is sold as powder or nasal spray, or most commonly, pressed into counterfeit pills resembling prescription opioids with widely varying amounts that make it potentially lethal.

As little as 2 mg. of fentanyl can be deadly, depending on a person’s body size and tolerability. A DEA lab analysis found 42% of pills tested for fentanyl contained at least 2 mg. The pills are designed to look like brand-name prescription opioids, such as light blue OxyContin pills or brightly colored pills.

Last year, the agency seized over 20 million fake pills nationwide; an additional 20 million more were confiscated in 2022.

The snorkel exhaust hood is one of the safety mechanisms in the DCI chemistry lab to prevent airborne particles from fentanyl and other illicit substances from potentially harming staff. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher) 

The DEA reported the pills are largely produced by two Mexican drug cartels – the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco (CJNG) Cartel. And a former drug dealer in northeast Wyoming said cartels have infiltrated many Wyoming communities.

More lethal variant detected in Wyoming

Last October, the DEA issued a report warning about the growing threat of new mixtures of illicit drugs. In particular, the DEA sounded the alarm about an increase of xylazine—also known as “Tranq”—being mixed with fentanyl and drugs like cocaine and heroin that are leading to overdose deaths.

Legally, xylazine is a non-opiate sedative and muscle relaxer that’s only authorized for veterinary care, per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But it’s not currently listed as a controlled substance under the U.S. Controlled Substance Act.

As such, the drug can be purchased in liquid or powder form through pharmaceutical distributors catering to veterinarians with no credentials required. It also can be purchased in liquid or powder form on internet sites, again without association or professional requirements that would provide a legitimate need, according to the DEA report.

Some Chinese online suppliers sell xylazine powder for as little as $6 to $20 per kilogram, the report states.

The cheap price and psychoactive effects, which have a longer-lasting effect than fentanyl alone, make it an attract ingredient for illicit drug manufacturers. Much like fentanyl, many people purchasing illicit opioids laced with xylazine and other drugs are unaware they are ingesting it, the DEA stated.

The DEA reported that the prevalence of the animal tranquilizer is increasing across the country, with the majority found in the Northeast over the last two years.

Jones confirmed that xylazine has been found in “a very small number of substances” tested in the DCI lab.

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