Secretive south Florida lab testing deadly street drugs

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The race is on to find the next killer street drug and a secretive lab in south Florida is home to the team working to find it.

It's high-tech and high-risk, and happening in a nondescript warehouse at a location we're not allowed to disclose. It's home to the Fort Knox of illegal street drugs.

"We cover the southeast region of the U.S. and the Caribbean," explained Agnes Winouker, the assistant director of the Drug Enforcement Agency's larges lab in the United States.

During FOX 13's visit to the lab, Winouker revealed what the DEA is up against in its war on drugs. She opened a storage unit to reveal a stockpile of illegal substances the lab is testing.

"So here you have meth, oxycodone, steroids. We have marijuana, cocaine, more marijuana, synthetic cathinones, heroine, cocaine... candy made from fetynel," she said as she went through the stash.
There were also cases toward the back of the unit holding what the lab calls bulk submissions - kilos of cocaine. The lab also deals with new drug compounds so vast and dangerous, the location isn't publicized.

"It's a new danger, not just for the public, but for the law enforcement," Winouker said.

After illegal drugs are seized, they're brought to the lab. But it's not as simple as boxing them up and bringing them over. Some of the compounds brought to the lab require protective suits - and many times, the DEA doesn't even know what's in the drugs. So every precaution has to be taken. 

Mirlande Germa-Titus is the senior forensic chemist at the lab and knows the dangers they're dealing with.

"We go in level 8, which is this hazmat suit you see here. It is very dangerous," she explained while showing us a plastic, head-to-toe suit. "Lab coat is a must...Proper gloves and goggles."

The rise in synthetic opiods is the main reason for the precautions. They've encountered a new drug that's 50 times more potent than heroine, and blows morphine away.
"Fentenyl is dangerous because it's 100 times more potent than morphine. It can go through your skin and if you inhale it, it can cause death," Germa-Titus said.

Fentenyl has legitimate medical uses for cancer pain relief when it's delivered in a time-released patch. On the street, an illicit pill can kill instantly. In Tampa, the amount of fentanyl exhibits submitted to the laboratory for analysis doubled from 2015-2016. For the state of Florida, their fentanyl exhibits increased from seven in 2015 to 55 in 2016.

"Right now, we have an unknown pink powder," Germa-Titus said as she showed us how they handle a compound. "I'm grinding, prepping a composite for analysis."

Once it's ready, the same is compared to known substances, using a computer to see what they can identify. This particular sample was clear of fentenyl, but that doesn't mean it's in the clear. Analysis showed an "unknown" compound, which could be just as or more dangerous.

"This is considered the 'hot side,'" Germa-Titus said, guiding us through the lab. "This is where we have all the dangers to you, the solvents. That's why you have on your glasses, as well. Everything is constantly changing."

Drugs are classified and made illegal according to their ingredients. Illegal drug-makers play chemist, constantly changing the structure of compounds, trying to stay ahead of the law. That means the lab finds new compounds on a regular basis.

"The amount that we're seeing is increasing over the years with the synthetic catanoids, cathanones and now, with the fentenyl," Winouker said.

That translates to anything from bath salts, to elephant tranquilizers, to the deadly synthetic drug known as "pink" -  which the DEA says has been involved in an increasing number of overdoses nationwide.

But the agency said it has a secret weapon. t's a half a million-dollar machine called a nuclear resonance spectrometer. It is one of the most powerful instruments a crime lab can have to identify new compounds, by showing how the atoms are connected to each other.

"It's instrumentation that, kind of, allows us to put the molecule back together," Winouker says. "We'll be able to say to our agents, say, 'this is a new compound [you're] seeing in the streets... The consumer needs to be aware that it is truly playing Russian roulette. You just don't know what you're going to get."