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DEA bust turns up euthanasia drug marketed as heroin

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DEA agents recently found 11 pounds of an unusual drug when they busted a cartel-linked illicit drug operation in Texas: A sedative used in euthanasia.

The dealers marketed the short-acting barbiturate pentobarbital as heroin, according to a DEA spokesperson. Agents seized other more common illicit drugs in larger quantiles during the multi-year investigation. Among them: 1,212 pounds of meth, 548 pounds of cocaine, 74 pounds of heroin, and 22,600 fentanyl-laced pills. The spokesperson said the seizure of pentobarbital was “uncommon” and “unique.”

One drug expert told The Center Square he hopes it doesn’t become a trend.

Federal officials said the drug ring operated in the Houston and Galveston areas and was under the control of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. But the group’s products traveled further including New Orleans; Pensacola, Florida; Atlanta; Nashville, Tennessee; and Chicago.

In medical settings, pentobarbital is rarely used outside of the intensive care unit, said Dr. Bruce Goldberger, chief of the Division of Forensic Medicine in the Department of Pathology, Immunology and Laboratory Medicine in the College of Medicine at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida.

“Pentobarbital is a potent and short-acting barbiturate,” he said. “Its modern day use in humans is restricted to the treatment of persistent intracranial hypertension (as an anesthetic) in the ICU, although its use has been supplanted by other more effective and safer drugs.”

Goldberger said, “I hope it is not a trend.”

Pentobarbital also is used in animal euthanasia, assisted suicide and some U.S. executions. The American Veterinary Medical Association reported a shortage of the drug in 2021, advising members about alternatives at the time. A 2022 article in the peer-reviewed journal “Animals” noted that “pentobarbital sodium is the drug of choice for companion animal euthanasia” in both the U.S. and Canada.

The drug has also been used in executions and assisted suicides. Most U.S. executions previously relied on a three-drug cocktail for executions, but when those drugs became difficult to obtain, several states switched to a single drug: Pentobarbital. When former U.S. Attorney General William Barr brought back the death penalty in 2019, the plan was for the Federal Bureau of Prisons to use pentobarbital, according to The BMJ, a medical journal and federal records.

The Texas bust wasn’t the first time pentobarbital has turned up in a smuggling operation. In 2019, a U.S. Coast Guard team boarded a boat off the coast of Oregon. When it became clear the man piloting the “Mandalay” was under the influence of drugs, he was taken the hospital. He told emergency medical workers that he had taken a “large amount” of what he thought was fentanyl, but they couldn’t get him to respond to an opioid reversal agent, naloxone, which was administered 15 times. Although naloxone didn’t work, the man survived. The drug turned out to be pentobarbital, according to court records.

Coast Guard personnel found 28 seven-gallon jugs containing liquid methamphetamine along with plastic-wrapped bricks of pentobarbital, according to court records and Coast Guard reports.