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Four men sentenced on drug charges in the last two weeks are tied to the one of two overdose deaths in Montana caused by a synthetic opiate experts say is typically sold as an elephant tranquilizer.

On Thursday in U.S. District Court in Missoula, Brent Timothy McCarthy was sentenced to eight months in federal prison for distributing cocaine in Gallatin County. His three co-defendants were each sentenced two weeks ago: Dylan Joseph Jardin, 21, got seven years in prison; Rady Charles Waters, 22, sentenced to one year, and Artemus "Al Beezy" Brock, 30, was sentenced to three years of probation.

Their cases stemmed from an investigation by Gallatin County law enforcement into the 2017 string of overdoses. Five people survived when first responders administered Narcan, which can restore breathing and reverse overdoses. But one person in Belgrade died from "acute combined opiate, oxymorphone, hydromorphone, and carfentanil intoxication," according to court documents.

"We started seeing it in forensics in 2016 and 2017," said said Scott Larson, an administrator for the state Department of Justice's Forensic Science Division and State Medical Examiner's Office. "It's a fairly niche thing, but the number of people who would use it and overdose, that's pretty high. People don't have the ability to handle that level of drug."

Only two people in Montana have been killed by the synthetic opiate that seems to have already come and gone, Larson said, underscoring the Whac-A-Mole-type game law enforcement plays with synthetic drugs. 

"It's like spice with synthetic cannabinoids," Larson said. "We're always playing catch-up in terms of trying to find methods to test and detect these drugs. … It's difficult to keep things updated in way that we can detect what's happening."

Nationally, the drug is found more often in the East Coast and Midwest, states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Larson said. In Montana, the drug appeared two years ago and has hardly reappeared on law enforcement's radar. Larson said that's because black market chemists, who can make a synthetic drug like carfentanil simply by looking up its components in literature available online, can easily move on to the next drug.

Carfentanil is roughly 10,000 times as potent as morphine, Larson said. While it is sold as a tranquilizer for large animals, its place in the drug world is more of a filler mixed in with heroin, fentanyl or cocaine, driving up that drug's potency when added, he said. 

The U.S. District Attorney's Office said in a September release that Jardin had admitted to selling cocaine, Xanax, meth, marijuana, oxycodone and other drugs. He obtained some of the pills through the "dark web," where buyers and sellers can remain anonymous typically with the use of cryptocurrency. Those sources then mailed the drugs to him in various addressed in Bozeman, according to federal prosecutors. 

McCarthy then received his drugs from Jardin, according to court filings. While he was originally indicted in March with the sale of drugs that caused the overdose death in Belgrade, prosecutors dismissed that charge two months later, charging him with a lone cocaine distribution offense.

On Sept. 14, 2017, Gallatin County deputies responded to a residence in Belgrade for a reported overdose death. A month later, a friend of the person who died came forward to police, identifying McCarthy as the dealer who sold the pills that caused the person's death, according to court documents.

There is no parole in the federal prison system, meaning that the men sentenced to prison will likely serve out their entire terms. 

The investigation was carried out by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Missouri River Drug Task Force. 

This article originally ran on missoulian.com.

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