Turning Off the Fentanyl Spigot
Global Director of Counter-Narcotics Technology at Rigaku Analytical Devices
We know where the drugs come from. We know how the drugs get here. We know how they are made and distributed world wide. Michael Brown explains how current and advancing technologies can aid in the disruption of the flow of fentanyl. Brown is the global director of counter-narcotics technology at Rigaku Analytical Devices. He has a distinguished career spanning more than 32 years as a Special Agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). As Mr. Brown explains, understanding the drug distribution chain is only the beginning. It takes pressure, cooperation, and political will to stop the flow. To book Michael Brown for engagements or for media requests, contact Evan Bloom, Fortress Strategic Communications, at [email protected]. More than 100,000 individuals lost their lives last year to synthetic opioid overdoses in the United States. If you want to know what you can do locally, get involved, support prevention activities, call or email legislators, ask your local school what they are doing to educate the students, and, most of all, talk to your children.
[Jaunty Guitar Music]
Mike: Welcome everybody. This is Avoiding The Addiction Affliction, a series brought to you by Westwords Consulting and the Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition. I'm Mike McGowan.
Mike: 52 years ago then President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs. Half a century later we're still at it.
Mike: Michael Brown. Is our guest today and has been at the front lines of that war for a long time.
Mike: He's the Global Director of Counter-narcotics technology at Rigaku Analytical Devices. He has a distinguished career spending more than 32 years as a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration. Nobody knows more about this. Today we talk about stemming the tide of the ongoing opioid epidemic.
Mike: Welcome Mr. Brown.
Michael: Welcome. Thank you.
Mike: Well, thanks for being with us, Michael. I, I've been really looking forward to doing this. Recently we've had guests on, from Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, Colorado, all over the country who have lost their children to Fentanyl. I thought it'd be a great place to start by having you explain the supply chain specific to Fentanyl.
Mike: How does it start? Where does it start, and how does it get to all of these remote places in the United States?
Michael: You know, I, I think we have to go back to 2012, 2013 when we started to see Fentanyl being shipped directly from China to drug traffickers in the United States. And these were domestic drug trafficking groups or individuals who understood how addictive Fentanyl was.
Michael: And saw an opportunity to branch into the drug trafficking market. Then by 2017, 2018, we saw a significant amount of Fentanyl coming into the country. We started seeing the overdose deaths and then the United States took action working with China, they were able to regulate Fentanyl. At that point, the Chinese stepped in on their side.
Michael: Told distributors in China, you cannot send Fentanyl to the United States. And then we saw a huge decrease, right? Because when the Chinese government tells somebody to do something, they generally do it. I mean, China executes roughly 300 people a year for narcotic offenses. So when they make a statement in China, people listen.
Michael: So then we saw this huge drop in Fentanyl distribution and overdose deaths. But then unbeknownst to us, law enforcement, the Mexican cartels, Sinaloa, C, J, and G, the new [inaudible] generation saw an opportunity being the narcotic businessmen that they are. They're like, Hey, this Fentanyl thing, we can, we can surpass the heroin market with Fentanyl cause it's more addictive and we can make more money.
Michael: But here's the thing, China can't send Fentanyl to Mexico, companies aren't allowed cause it's restricted. We'll just get the precursors and use our methamphetamine and heroin clandestine laboratories to produce Fentanyl. We already have the infrastructure, we have the knowhow, we have the chemists, we have the political connections, we have the ability to import it, so let's do that.
Michael: Then the Mexicans brought it in, the Mexican cartels, and then we just saw this huge explosion of Fentanyl coming into the United States. So, you know, in understanding the supply chain. Using your phone app, you can get online and you can order these precursors from Fentanyl. They're then shipped via international parcel carriers to Mexico where they're then distributed, and then those parcels are collected, they're opened up, the precursors are taken out, taken to a laboratory, and then they're produced into, you know, millions of Fentanyl tablets that are then distributed to every corner in the United States.
Mike: And, and I've heard that now we're trying to do something with the postal service and FedEx, U.P.S. and the packages that come in.
Michael: Well, I mean, exactly. US Postal inspections actually did a phenomenal job in 2015 to 2018 by developing an algorithm that could identify suspect parcels being shipped to the United States.
Michael: For example, if suddenly the algorithm says, Mike Brown suddenly is getting 15 parcels from Wuhan China of green tea extract, he's never gotten that parcel before. Let's open one of those parcels and see what it is. And that green tea parcel was maybe some Fentanyl or precursor chemicals. So then the postal office started making those seizures, started making those interdictions, and drove it underground, in addition to the restrictions that China had put on it.
Michael: So now, we're back to that position, right. And when you look at critical capabilities in the Fentanyl distribution supply chain, the most critical capability for the cartels is their ability to unwittingly use the parcel express companies that you just mentioned, right. Because if you're in Wuhan China, which is one of the largest distribution points for precursors coming into the United States, an individual walks into U.P.S. or FedEx drops off a box the size of a shoebox. Says it's protein powder or herbal medicine, and U.P.S. ships it with a tracking label.
Michael: So now the drug trafficker in Mexico can track his package. He can see where it's coming from wuhan China. It transits through Alaska where US Customs does a check, and then from Alaska, it goes on to Mexico to delivery. But now we're talking about that proverbial needle in a haystack, right? Hundreds of thousands of parcels containing Fentanyl precursors hidden in a haystack of millions of parcels that move every week.
Mike: You know, that's interesting cuz I've seen some of the photos of the warehouse of parcels that come in and I would have no, you're right. It is a needle in a haystack and, and it seems like the cartels don't really care if they lose a little in the process because there's such a huge profit margin that even if they lose stuff, they still make a ton of money.
Michael: Well, the general consensus says we're only seizing about 1% of a $500 billion a year global drug industry. So like any business, if you produce widgets, you know you're gonna lose 10% will be destroyed in shipping or get lost. So we're gonna absorb that cost and we're gonna produce more. So that loss does not impact our overall production cycle.
Michael: But when I was in Myanmar, I was the country attache for D.E.A. in Myanmar 2017 and 2019. And Myanmar's biggest problem was methamphetamine production, which is being fed by the precursors coming in from China. So I instituted a program with the local law enforcement using what's called raman spectroscopy.
Michael: It's a handheld laser that the customs officers could then use to inspect mislabeled chemicals. Using that device in the first month of the pilot program, they seized over six tons of benzene that was mislabeled, that would've went straight to a methamphetamine clandestine laboratory. So, right. So it's now, it's a matter of understanding the transportation and clandestine movement of these precursors using the right technology and then impacting that.
Michael: So for the cartels, my point being for the cartels in Myanmar. That seizure of precursor chemicals represented a greater threat than the seizure of say, 10,000 kilograms of produced methamphetamine because now you're taking the raw materials to make the product. We can lose product. We can't lose the precursor chemicals. That's critical to every drug trafficking operation.
Mike: So that if we're waiting until it comes from Mexico across the border their already happy because they've made it. At that point.
Michael: Well, right at that point, the critical capability of the cartels to get that parcel from Wuhan China to the clandestine laboratory in quantity, right.
Michael: Hundreds of thousands of parcels, maybe maritime containerized shipments are coming in as well, which is how the precursor chemicals for methamphetamine are shipped.
Michael: Right. And clandestine, mislabeled cargo shipments. So once they get over that, once they get past that checkpoint, Nobody's hitting the laboratories in Mexico.
Michael: Their laboratories are everywhere. And we're even seeing laboratories clandestine, methamphetamine, I'm sorry, clandestine Fentanyl laboratories pop up in America as drug traffickers begin to see the enormous profitability. So, you know, if, if it's not gonna get hit at the precursor chemical stage where the parcels are coming in.
Michael: If it's not gonna get hit at the laboratories, then all they have to do is smuggle it across the border and the cartels have 50 years of experience. Subject matter expert transporters, moving tons of narcotics across that US Mexican border. Again, using hundreds of vehicles, thousands of vehicles that come into the United States every day that are outfitted to carry concealed Fentanyl, methamphetamine, heroin, cargo shipments, maritime, air, and human traffickers coming across the border.
Mike: Do we have an idea of the percentages for that Michael? Like what comes in via legal ports of entry versus smuggled in.
Michael: Well, certainly you can look with ok customs and Border Protection. Their seizure rates are enormous. Especially about two years ago when we saw a phenomenal amount of Fentanyl being seized, coming across the border.
Michael: It seemed like every day we were seizing, you know, the largest seizure ever.
Mike: Yeah, yeah.
Michael: It was just a repeating cycle or a repeating title in the news, you know, C.B.P. seizes, you know, X million pills. Then D.E.A. in Chicago seizes X millions of pills. The problem is we don't know how much is being produced, so we really can't say, you know, is this, are these seizures really relevant?
Michael: But then when we look at the overdose rate and the distribution continues to increase, we can say, yeah, we're, we're only seizing less than 1%. And I saw that working in, you know, Bolivia, I saw it working in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The production cycle is just 100% industrial at this point.
Mike: Well, and it, it's not just it's not just coming across as Fentanyl.
Mike: Right. They're, they're making it into counterfeit drugs. We had a guest on Michael Murphy whose daughter Lizzie passed away. She took what looked like a Xanax. Logan Rockwell from Wisconsin took what looked like a Percocet. And so they're making this stuff to look like mm, chemicals that people might already be taking.
Michael: And here's the, I don't like using the word genius, but when you look at the business model of the cartels, the cartels saw a new marketing paradigm, right? There's a whole lot of folks out there who don't use narcotics, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. They're not substance users, but they do use Adderall. They do use Percocet. They do use painkillers. And the cartel saw from the opioid crisis with Purdue Pharma, how potent Oxycontin was. And they're like, we want to get that market. We wanna get that pill market, so let's start producing pills of Fentanyl that look like Oxycontin, that look like Percocets.
Michael: Let's hit that paradigm and let's grab those folks, because once they start taking that Adderall and they survive, and it's actually Fentanyl, now they're gonna be Fentanyl addicts. So they created a new paradigm of drug trafficking and managed to increase drug distribution to a group of folks who normally would never use narcotics.
Michael: And like we saw with Oxycontin, when that got cut off, people turned to heroin in West Virginia. And then when the heroin got cut off, they turned to the Fentanyl, right? So now folks who were taking pill medicines, pills to address back pain are now actively searching for Fentanyl cuz they're full-time addicted.
Mike: Well, and we've had guests on from California and they've told us, Michael, that forget heroin. They're not even asking for that anymore. It's all Fentanyl.
Michael: And that was the business model of the cartels. To slowly integrate a new substance to replace an old substance. Massachusetts, you can't even find heroin anymore.
Michael: It's, all Fentanyl seizures. So using a Fentanyl test strip's really irrelevant because users know they're buying Fentanyl. Now you can get a test strip for Xylazine right. The additives right, right. That they're adding to Fentanyl, the, the Nitazenes. All these more potent, completely synthetic substances that are being used to increase the addictive rate or the addictive quality of Fentanyl.
Mike: Well, and I read an interesting article that you were either part of or wrote. It's not just the cartels in Mexico.
Mike: You talk about the I'm gonna use the wrong term here. Mom and pop operations in the United States. Small network distributions.
Michael: Yeah. I call it the Dick and Jane. It was an article I wrote some time ago, the Dick and Jane Cottage Industry, where the average individual says, you know what, when I look at drug trafficking in the past, right, you had to go into notorious areas and deal with very bad people, and you had to take possession of drugs. Say for example, go buy a kilo of heroin, then you had to know how to break it down, how to cut it, how to sell it, how to distribute it, and maybe you get killed, right? I'm not gonna do that, but now I can roll out of bed at nine o'clock, get my coffee, get on the internet.
Michael: I can order Xylazine, I can order the precursors for Fentanyl, have it shipped to my house. I can go online and figure out how to make it. And I never have to leave my house and I can resell it from my house using one of the apps on my phone that we're hearing a lot about. So now, I mean, there was a woman in, I think it was San Jose, California.
Michael: She was an executive assistant for a police department, white female, 51. She had been ordering pills and drugs from 12 different countries for almost 13 years, having it delivered to the police station where she felt so comfortable and then reselling it on the internet. That is the perfect example of the cottage industry drug trafficker, seeing a huge opportunity in the internet phase of online shopping.
Michael: That's the new threat.
Mike: Yeah. And, and they're using social media. To get people to run it all over the country.
Michael: Exactly. I mean, if you look at social media, I mean, it's that, it's that classical double-edged sword, right? We all right now we're doing a podcast. I'm at home in my basement. I'm not in an office.
Michael: You're thousands of miles away. So now if I want to use that medium to sell you know, whatever Fentanyl, precursor chemicals, methamphetamine. You go back to the mid-nineties when you had the Silk Road investigation D.E.A. did. That trafficker was the first individual who said, I can reach millions of people through the internet and never leave my house.
Michael: And then other traffickers saw that the cartels saw that, and then they emulated it and they perfected it down to a perfect science.
Mike: You know this is so. I'm a history major in college, right? So this stuff is really fascinating to me. I hope it is to our listeners, but it, it leaves you with little, oh my gosh.
Mike: You know, the more we confiscate, you know, the more we realize that there's so much more out there. So it seems as though when we're fighting this war that we're not winning on the supply side. Would it be better to fight it on the demand side?
Michael: Well, I don't like the term, the war on drugs.
Michael: Cause if you look back towards the Nixon administration, they had a situation of phenomena with heroin. They didn't understand it. Kind of like Vietnam. We're gonna go in and we're gonna defeat the enemy and it's gonna be over. Well, they went in and fought the enemy, the drug traffickers, the cartels, and they found out it wasn't that easy to defeat. Cause as soon as you erased one cartel, another cartel popped up. There's always somebody in the shadows waiting to take that number one spot. And when you look at war, classic war, you defeat the Germans, you defeat the Japanese, new government. It's done, it's over.
Michael: We're in [inaudible]. Drug trafficking, the, the war on drug. It's really, it's a, it's a continuous combative effort, right. Against criminality. What we're dealing with is crime. It's like saying war on crime, war on bank robbery. You're never gonna be able to stop people from robbing banks. A war on mass shooting.
Michael: We can't stop mass shootings. Right. But we're in this, this eternal struggle against evil, against criminality. And the best we can do is to continue that fight. But to your point, we've been trying to fight it on the, the addiction side, but then you have to address the thousands of reasons why people turn to narcotics in the first place.
Michael: Depression, post-traumatic stress, bad upbringings, had a bad day at work. They were an alcoholic then they turned to narcotics. Who knows the reasons, right? It's like, again, trying to predict who's gonna be a mass shooter. That great kid who was doing great in school, had a bad day, and he went and shot 30 of his classmates.
Michael: How do we predict, right? What, what's the predictive analysis model? And when looking at narcotics, it's, in my opinion, it's going to be impossible to solely concentrate on the harm reduction side of this equation. I've always telling people the drug conflict has surpassed the ability of US law enforcement to successfully mitigate.
Michael: It is now at the executive branch level cause it's going to require bilateral cooperation with the Chinese, bilateral cooperation with the Mexican government to go after these companies. The Chinese government knows every company that's producing Fentanyl, in my opinion, or Fentanyl precursors and who's shipping it.
Michael: This is a government that monitors the phones of billions of people every day. They know everything happening in China. So just like with Fentanyl, I think the Chinese government, the P.R.C., could go in tomorrow, snap their fingers, and that problem would disappear. The cartels no longer have the influx of chemicals coming in.
Michael: Secondary suppliers such as India or the Balkans or the Netherlands, could not manage the distribution quantity. And we would see Fentanyl slowly disappear from the drug market. And we go back to heroin then, the normal usual suspects in drug trafficking. Right?
Mike: But they don't because.
Michael: Well, I mean, look at our relationship with China.
Michael: They're flying balloons, five balloons over our country. They're trying to take Taiwan. We are, we are at an aggressive posture with China, but yet they're our number one trading partner. Yet we're, we're selling them fuel. Mexico, N.A.F.T.A., right. You're talking about a multi-billion dollar trade agreement with Mexico.
Michael: So we really can't close the border now cuz there are a lot of interests in America that are making a lot of money from trade that say, mm, drug problem, not our problem. Getting our cars across the border, getting our merchandise across the border, addressing our stockholders. That's our issue. So now Americans are really faced with, do we normalize and accept 170,000 overdose deaths as just casualties of a much larger economic problem, profit over human lives?
Michael: And that's where we're at, in my opinion.
Mike: You know, you talked a little bit about harm reduction and we've talked a lot about it here. Our local law enforcement, corrections officers, social workers who monitor this on the using side of it don't always have the tools that they need to do it. Could you talk a little bit about that presumptive analysis technology that you're involved with?
Michael: Yeah. Presumptive analysis, again, like referring back to when I worked in Myanmar and their biggest problem was methamphetamine production in the insurgent areas where the police couldn't go. So I said, your problem is not a law enforcement problem. It's a technology problem. Methamphetamine is 100% synthetic.
Michael: Where's the cross border transportation hub for Myanmar China. Well, it's at a place called Muse, Northern Miramar. It's the big open border where all the commercial products come in. I said, well do, are you able to track which chemicals are coming in? He says, "Yeah, we, we can track what chemicals come coming in. But number one, our customs guys, they don't read Mandarin. They don't speak Mandarin, so they're just waving trucks across the border because we don't want the backlog. Our boss calls and says, Hey, you're holding up traffic. Let's get it moving." So I said, well, let's look at some technology. So I did this huge search and I found a company called Rigaku.
Michael: They make what's called a C.Q.L. Analyzer. And it's basically a handheld device that using a laser, the laser disrupts the molecules of a substance, allowing the the program to read and understand what that substance is, right? So have you ever seen like a glass break when, when a certain frequency hits it?
Michael: Right. That's the frequency disrupting the molecule structure of the glass, causing it to break. So using that same concept, Rigaku designed a laser that you can shoot into, let's say a clear glass of benzene. The laser will disrupt those molecules. They start to vibrate and that creates a signature, which the computer programming can then read and say, ah, this is not hydrogen peroxide, this is benzene and it can be used to make methamphetamines.
Michael: You have this big warning light. So basically I took all the thinking out of drug inspection and gave the police technology and within I said, six months of using that they were making record seizures that they had never made before. And just to highlight how critical damaging this was to the cartels.
Michael: The cartels actually raided one of the checkpoints and killed a police officer just to destroy that one handheld raman. Then we all sat back and said, aha!
Mike: It's working.
Michael: It's working. This is the, this is the key. This is the holy grail of chemical interdiction. This is where we should be focusing our efforts.
Mike: Well do, do we have it? Because every time I see a report from our border, I, I'm still seeing, you know individual agents pulling cars apart and using mirrors underneath. And it would seem, (laugh) and I, I never see anybody with a handheld device. Maybe it's just a, they're not filming the right thing.
Michael: Well, at that point, Fentanyl's already been produced and and pressed in the pills or powder, and it's put in vehicles and it's coming across the border where if we had a cooperative partner with Mexico, I would have agents at the port of entry, right?
Michael: The airports where these parcels are coming in, and then where the cargo shipments are coming in. And we would just start looking at everything coming from China, no matter what it says, what kind of chemical it's labeled as. We're gonna inspect a hundred percent of every chemical coming into the port of Mexico.
Michael: So much to the point where the cartels, it's just, it's too much. It's gonna shut down the trafficking of those precursor chemicals, right? If you're in Peru, if you're in Columbia, you're gonna be at the ports looking for Acetic anhydride, the primary precursor for cocaine production, right?
Michael: If you look back, I mean, Columbia's producing hundreds of millions of metric tons of cocaine. They need Acetic anhydride. Primarily it's all coming from China and it's being shipped maritime, right? So if I was in charge of D.E.A., I would hire a whole bunch of analysts who understand shipping manifests, get that information, create using A.I., create a code or program that can help me sort through the meta data of shipping information and say, okay, these shipments look suspect.
Michael: Let's start opening some of these containers and using this new technology, this raman spectroscopy technology, to start looking for these shipments of Acetic anhydride, because it's coming in in ton quantities.
Mike: You know, you're talking about now the, the giveaway question or the, the walk-off question for you was gonna be what works?
Mike: What should we be doing? And but more specifically, what should we just stop doing?
Michael: Well, I think it's not stop doing. What we're doing is we're, we're doing investigations, we're making drug seizures, we're taking Fentanyl off the street. But what's missing on that equation is an emphasis on the precursor chemical tracking capability, right? We know how these parcels are moving from China to Mexico with Fentanyl precursors. We need a full court press working with the private industry carriers to figure out a way to develop, to develop AI technology. To create an algorithm that can sort through all that data, right? We take all that shipping data from those companies and we run it through this, you know, an IA [AI] program that can help us figure out what just doesn't look right.
Michael: Suddenly, I mean, if you look at one carrier, I bet you would see that their partial shipments have increased dramatically over the last five years. What's, what's causing that increase? And suddenly all these parcels coming from certain parts of China where all these precursor chemical factories are.
Michael: Right. Again, the, the example I use, if Mike Brown starts getting all these parcels and he never got 'em before, and they're, they're protein powders, or they're pool cleaners, or they're, they're biomedicines, something doesn't make sense, right? With our technology on tracking shipments, right? You, these, these companies can track millions of parcels moving across the world globally on a daily basis with incredible accuracy.
Michael: I would put more emphasis on the analytical aspect and targeting the modes of transportation and break that module. We don't have to, we don't have to seize every package. We just gotta disrupt it 60%. 60% disruption. The Fentanyl precursor would have dramatic effects in their ability to produce and maintain the high levels of production and distribution.
Michael: Reduce the production and distribution. You reduce the, the addictive rate by limiting the amount or reducing the amount of finished product that hits the street.
Mike: You optimistic?
Michael: No, I'm not optimistic. I don't see our government making that, that move. I see. You know, we've got a lot of, you know, when I was working with State Department, we'd have these meetings and they'd say, you know, Mike, there's just bigger issues right now.
Michael: You know, we've got around, we've got North Korea, we've got China. There's a bigger threat continuum right now, so narcotics is down 5, 6, 7, 8 on the list, right? It's just not as a serious threat as a. The war in Ukraine, Russian expansion, Chinese expansion into the South China Sea, right? Iran's piracy in the Gulf of Oman. Terrorist organizations, Al-Qaeda.
Michael: There's a lot of real threats out there against America. The cartels are just one on a list of many, so now it's a pecking order. What are the most critical threats We have to address those with limited resources, but, It's going to take the American people to stand up and say, you know what? It's our sons and daughters who are dying.
Michael: We pay our taxes. We have a right to protection. We have a right to security. We need something done more on the Fentanyl precursor supply chain, bilateral relationships with China and Mexico have to be fixed, so this problem can be addressed.
Mike: Excellent. That's a great takeaway. Michael. I really appreciate you being with us today.
Mike: This has been so interesting and informative. Thank you for your work. Thank you for your career. Thank you for your ongoing career. You know, you could have retired for crying out loud (laugh).
Michael: You know, in D.E.A. there's a saying D.E.A. agents don't retire they just transitioned to another job.
Mike: Yeah (laugh). Like a lot of us Right?
Michael: But thanks for the platform. This is an important message. People have to understand the real, you know, the grassroots information on, on Fentanyl, the precursor chemicals, because. This is just not the type of information you read in a paper.
Mike: No, it's not. And that's, that's part of the reason why we're doing this.
Mike: And I think, you know, going back to what you just said a moment ago I've been totally impressed on, on these small groups of parents that are getting things actually done in their communities from.
Mike: Having Narcan distributed in every college in the state of Wisconsin. That's one mom doing that.
Mike: It, two years ago that there was none.
Mike: And today they have it in every dorm because of one family.
Michael: Yeah. You know, it's, it's if I could just quickly add, if you look at, it's really once we get the families involved, I mean, if you look at Virginia, I live in Virginia they got a Republican governor elected because the parents said, we want to control what our kids learn.
Michael: You know, when, when, when the system started messing with people's kids, people were like, no, we gotta draw the line. We're gonna take over that situation. So we've gotta, we've gotta get these groups across the country, these mothers, these parents, these fathers, get them organized and get their voice in Washington to demand change on the Fentanyl enforcement efforts that this country's taking.
Mike: Yeah. What we think is important is what they actually do.
Mike: Michael, thank you so much. And listeners, thank you for being with us today. Obviously there's links to Michael's information on online here, and we invite you to listen in next time when we'll again dive more into this topics.
Mike: Until then, stay safe, stay informed, and get involved.
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