Prepare to feel pretty worn out after reading Alex W. Palmer's lengthy dive into a global fentanyl ring for the New York Times. The piece is staggering in its scope—in terms of distance (it bounces between Hong Kong, North Dakota, and Florida, among other locales), timeline, and complexity. Palmer explains how the January 2015 overdose death of 18-year-old Bailey Henke in Grand Forks, ND, was a key piece of a puzzle that ended up stretching across continents. But in 2015, in Grand Forks, officials were confused. The fentanyl ODs were racking up, and no one knew where the drug was coming from. One of Palmer's jarring details: A friend of Henke's found the fentanyl that was left over from his fatal OD and took it: "When paramedics arrived at the apartment, they had to walk over the bloodstain from Bailey’s death to help the girl."
Florida-based DEA agent Mike Buemi had since 2013 been looking into China as a source, but he was tracking molly—and saw that a Chinese distributor was selling acetyl fentanyl pills as well. Buemi "still didn't really understand what it was or why it was being shipped to the United States as a street drug," Palmer writes. He soon learned it "was a drug trafficker's dream": entirely lab-made and insanely profitable. A kilogram of it, combined with heroin, could make pills worth millions; a kilogram of heroin alone returns about $80,000 in profit. Buemi started by simply trying to track the flow of 50 acetyl fentanyl pills from China through Canada and into South Florida. His undercover work then led him from a Quebec prison to Shanghai-based Zaron Bio-tech—which allegedly made the fentanyl that killed Henke. He had a case. But that was just the beginning. (Read the full story here.)