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Deadly fentanyl disguised as 'black tar heroin' showing up on Tucson streets

A dark drug is being peddled by Southern Arizona dealers: a concoction of potentially lethal levels of the synthetic narcotic fentanyl and burned sugar, designed to resemble black tar heroin, authorities said.

The fake drug is not such a sweet deal: it creates an extreme risk of overdose for users who believe it is less potent "real" heroin, authorities said.

Tucson police seized a bindle of the substance from a suspect in August, and confirmed that it was fentanyl mixed with sugar. The Arizona High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force warned health care workers on Wednesday to be on the lookout for the fake heroin.

While the Tucson Police Department has said that the "heroin" was the first fake black tar known to have been seized here, investigators are examining other drug evidence dating back to March to determine if there have been previous instances where the drug was found.

About 10 other seizures could be tested as the investigation continues, and the disguised drug may also have made an appearance in the Phoenix area, TPD Captain John Leavitt of the Counter Narcotics Alliance said.

While opioid abuse is a widespread problem in Arizona, fewer overdose deaths from fentanyl have occurred here because many local heroin users use black tar based on heroin refined from poppy plants grown in Mexico. On the East Coast, much of the "white heroin" supply is manufactured with fentanyl rather than being refined from imported natural heroin.

"The problem is in the quality control" when the fake drugs are manufactured, Leavitt said. "You might take one dose and get the same level of fentanyl as a therapeutic prescription dose; the next pinch might have 25 milligrams — that's an absolutely fatal dose."

"You don't know what you're getting," he said.

The initial dose of the fake drug was found when TPD officers ran a records check on a man observed loitering at the rear of a business. When the officers searched the person after learning he had an active felony arrest warrant, they discovered two packets of drugs: one with .75 grams of a white crystalline substance that was later confirmed to be methamphetamine, and .52 grams of a dark tar-like substance with a vinegar odor, resembling heroin. Field testing of the second bindle did not show the contents were heroin, however. Later analysis demonstrated that it was fentanyl, mixed with extremely caramelized sugar.

TPD's crime lab will examine nearly a dozen other drug packets from previous cases that resembled black tar but did not result in positive field tests for heroin, Leavitt said.

Whether disguised as black tar heroin or other drugs — "people are taking fentanyl thinking it's oxy(contin) or Xanax," Leavitt said — the narcotic is a growing problem as it crowds out other street drugs in Tucson.

"Our (undercover) officers bought a couple thousand pills just last week," he said.

Undercover investigators with the Counter Narcotics Alliance — an inter-governmental task force that includes TPD, Marana police and the Pima County Sheriff's Department, along with the Drug Enforcement Administration, Border Patrol and other federal agencies — are "out buying tar right now to find fresh samples" to determine just how pervasive the fake heroin might be, and what the source is, Leavitt said.

Fentanyl-based street drugs are gaining ground across the country because they are cheaper and easier to produce, Leavitt said.

"You don't have to grow the poppies, or transport large amounts of raw material. You don't have to be good at growing things," he said.

A street-drug manufacturer can purchase a kilo of precursor ingredients — mostly imported illegally from China — for about $32,000, and crank out piles of counterfeit 1.2 mg Oxycontin pills worth $9 million.

"People are accustomed to (black tar) being the 'safest' of heroins," Leavitt said, calling the possibility of widespread fake drugs made with highly potent fentanyl a "dangerous" situation.

"The fastest-growing demographic of people overdosing is 50- to 59-year-olds; people who've gotten used to a prescription dose of oxy but are unable to get it with tightened controls," he said. Those users are instead turning to street drugs.

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The drug task force has previously noted that fentanyl-based "Mexican Oxy" pills sold by dealers here have included a cocktail of other chemicals, including the synthetic opioid tramadol, dimethyltryptamine (DMT - the toxic pyschoactive secretion of the Colorado River toad), lidocaine, cocaine, meth, caffeine, the hookworm medication levamisole, and many unknown compounds.

"People need to know that treatment is available, effective and affordable," he said. "It's available today; there are no lines. You can get help and they'll figure out how to pay for it."

"Outpatient help is much more effective with opioids," Leavitt said.

Hard drug seizures spike

Seizures of hard drugs by the Counter Narcotics Alliance have almost doubled this year, Leavitt said.

Cocaine seizures through the third quarter bumped up, 281 kilograms vs. 50 through the third quarter of 2017. Meth seizures are up from 92 kg to 345 kg.

Heroin seizures spiked from 15 kg to 68 kg through the third quarter, comparing 2017 to 2018, while fentanyl seizures moved from just 11 kg to 27 kg.

Legitimate use and overdoses

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid developed in 1960 by Janssen Pharmaceutical Inc., is prescribed to treat pain and is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for limited use as an analgesic. It is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin and 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

The influx of fentanyl into the U.S. is the cause for the majority of drug overdoses, authorities say.

"Last year, we had 60,000 drug overdoses in the U.S., and roughly 40,000 of those were opioid overdoses," said Doug Coleman, the DEA's special agent in charge of the Phoenix office, interviewed earlier this year.

Fentanyl contributes to this because it can be produced in a pill form that mimics pills prescribed by doctors, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. Users unknowingly buy fentanyl and take it at dosage levels consistent with the less-powerful drugs, thus overdosing. The DEA works with Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies to curb this, but each time they target a specific pill, the cartels switch to another kind, Coleman said.

Compared with shooting or snorting a drug, Coleman said, pills are considered less risky by the user. Pills are prescribed by doctors, making them safer in the mind of the user.

He likened the situation to a cat and mouse game that leaves users at greater risk of overdose.

"Users buy these pills from a third party, on the street, and are told that they are strong oxy or hydro and pop three, because that's how they are used to taking them, and that's when it can be too much."


"We are the tip of the spear for drug trafficking," said Coleman, "and if you want to see what will happen to the rest of the country, watch what happens in Arizona first."

Most illicit fentanyl comes from China, and it can be bought online pretty cheaply – $30 buys enough to overdose, the DEA says. But Mexican drug cartels increasingly are hungry for a piece of the action. They buy the synthetic components and manufacture fentanyl in powder or pill form to be smuggled into the U.S.

The profits are enormous: $3,500 can produce up $1 million worth of the drug. But the risks to public health are just as large: 1 pound of fentanyl can create enough lethal doses to kill a quarter-million people, authorities say.

In an interview in early July, Coleman said the Phoenix office of the DEA saw the rise of fentanyl and heroin before any other office in the country, and he points to the Sinaloa drug cartel, considered one of the largest and most violent criminal organizations in the world, as the culprit.

The cartel has claimed Arizona's border with Mexico as its territory, the DEA says.

Fentanyl is popular with sellers because it's more potent in smaller amounts, it's easier to manufacture and provides higher profits. One pound can make about 500,000 pills, and each pill can be sold for $15 to $20, the DEA says.

Drugs coming across the Arizona-Mexico border is old hat. The vast majority of drugs that enter the U.S. come through the Southwest border and have for decades. Authorities say fentanyl smuggling is a more recent phenomenon.

"Here in Arizona," Coleman said, "we have seen a 2,000 percent increase in the amount of fentanyl powder we seize and a 3,000 percent increase in the amount of fentanyl pills."

In the past year, seizures as large as 10 pounds were reported by DPS, and seizures as large as 88 pounds have been reported by the DEA.

Despite the quantities of fentanyl confiscated, overdose deaths continue to rise across the U.S. – with nearly 1,500 suspected opioid deaths in Arizona last year, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. Nationally, opioids claim 115 Americans each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Smuggling fentanyl is not much different from smuggling other illicit drugs into Arizona.

"Fentanyl that comes across the border comes through concealed compartments in cars and trucks," Coleman said. "Fentanyl then gets distributed from Tucson and Phoenix to places all over the country."

Cronkite News reporter Conrad Romero contributed to this story.

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Fake 'black tar' heroin, made from fentanyl and burned sugar.

Need help?

If you need help with heroin/opioid addiction, Tucson's CODAC is available 24/7: call 520-202-1786 any time.

The agency's drug treatment center offers methadone, suboxone and naltrexone treatment, help with withdrawal symptoms, and more.

If you or someone you know may be experiencing an overdose, call 911 immediately.

Prompt administration of Narcan, carried by TPD officers and paramedics, can save a life.