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ISO: Powerful synthetic opioid deadly-to-the-touch seen in South Florida

A Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official stacks evidence boxes outside Miami's DEA Southeast Laboratory near Everglades National Park on Thursday April 28, 2022. (WPEC){p}{/p}
A Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official stacks evidence boxes outside Miami's DEA Southeast Laboratory near Everglades National Park on Thursday April 28, 2022. (WPEC)

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First, it was oxycontin. Then, fentanyl. And now, a new, more powerful, more deadly drug is making its way onto South Florida streets.

Isotonitazene, commonly referred to as ISO, is now linked to overdose deaths all over the United States.

It’s said to be 20 times stronger than fentanyl; drug dealers are mixing it with other narcotics for sale and it's killing people.

ISO is creating such a problem, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody warned simply coming in contact with the drug can be deadly.

Last year, Mark Geary lost his 42-year-old son Jeff to an overdose after he took hydrocodone that he didn’t realize had been laced with ISO.

“Just one pill can be deadly and there was no coming back from that,” Geary told CBS12 News.

Jeff’s cause of death was initially reported as a fentanyl overdose, but tests later revealed it was ISO that killed him.

Geary adds, “He just got it in the neighborhood from a so-called friend that I don’t believe he even knew.

What fentanyl was to heroin, ISO is going to be to fentanyl, when they start taking a closer look at all these fentanyl deaths.

Once ingested, ISO directly affects the central nervous system, slowing heart rate and breathing until they eventually stop.

“This is the single most, important drug-related threat that we have at this time,” said Justin Miller, Intelligence Chief for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Miami field division.

He told CBS12 News ISO first appeared on their radar in 2019.

It's most commonly made in China, shipped to Mexico, then repackaged and smuggled into the United States.

Like fentanyl, ISO can be laced and sold as a counterfeit pain pill.

Often, it’s unsuspecting individuals that are taking it.

“They don’t know what’s in the drug. They don’t know the potency of it. We see this over and over again. It’s unfortunate, it’s tragic,” said Miller.

There’s no question ISO is here in the state of Florida.

In this special Addicted Florida Report, CBS12 News got an exclusive look at how the DEA is going after this deadly threat and how they track dangerous synthetic opioids like ISO.

But first, we had to suit up in protective gear.

Later, we joined some of the DEA’s forensic chemists inside their lab, a lab filled with various fume hoods and high-tech machinery for chemical analysis.

For the most part, it’s quiet inside.

These men and women are tightly focused on the job at hand.

“Before we conduct our analysis, we have to know what it is,” chemist Parker Beaupre said while on a quest to identify an unknown opioid.

Samples are placed in vials daily. Then mixed with liquids to eventually narrow down the chemical content of an unidentified substance, seized by law enforcement, so it can be tracked and regulated.

“This is just like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. Each one could be a death trap,” said a second chemist, who did not want to be identified.

Part of ISO’s threat is that federal drug laws have had trouble keeping up with new drugs being sold by traffickers.

When a street drug first appears, its chemical makeup may need to be added to the list of prohibited substances.

It wasn’t until 2020 that the DEA officially labeled Isotonitazene as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it’s unsafe and considered high-risk for abuse.

At that time, the drug was linked to 40 deaths in a six-month period.

Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Florida ranks second in the nation for overdose deaths.

From Palm Beach County to the Treasure Coast, law enforcement agencies are seeing ISO on the street.

The Martin County Sheriff’s Narcotics Unit has found another potential problem: a single dose of Narcan, the medication that reverses the effects of opioid overdose, doesn’t always work with ISO.

Multiple doses are sometimes needed, which increases accidental deaths.

“There are people out there that are giving these products to our friends and family. The results can be devastating. We don’t just let it end right there. We try to find them. Where they got the pulls from,” said Capt. Bill Dowby with the Martin County Sheriff’s Office.

Mark Geary is sharing his son’s story with CBS12 News to encourage those fighting addiction to seek help.

“Hopefully my son’s story will save another family from going through what ours is and maybe save a life or two,” Geary said.

If you or someone you know is struggling with opioid addiction, here is a list of resources in our viewing area that can help.

Drug Abuse Foundation of Palm Beach County (561) 278-0000.

New Horizons of the Treasure Coast and Okeechobee: (772) 672-8400

Palm Beach Treasure Coast 211 Hotline: Dial 211, (561) 383-1112 or (866) 822-2991.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health National Helpline: 800-662-HELP (4357).

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