Norcross man convicted for manufacturing designer opioids out of U-Haul storage unit

Christopher West

A Norcross man will spend the next 30 or so years behind bars after recently being convicted of producing designer drugs dozens of times more potent than morphine as part of a homegrown pill manufacturing operation.

On Tuesday, Gwinnett County Superior Court Judge Kathryn Schrader found 32-year-old Christopher Ramone West guilty of six counts of possession of tools for the commission of a crime, two counts of manufacturing and possession with intent to distribute a non-controlled substance and one count of use of a facility to commit a felony following an hours-long bench trial, according to a District Attorney’s news release.

West was sentenced to a total of 44 years with the first 29 to be served in prison for manufacturing the pills, a business that he was operating out of a U-Haul self-storage facility, the release said. He was initially arrested on Jan. 27, 2017 following several months of surveillance by local agents.

Local law enforcement was first tipped off about West’s operation in November 2016 by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which had notified the Gwinnett Metro Task Force (GMTF) that West was ordering large amounts of pill-making materials from a Canadian company.

Beginning in December of that year, GMTF agents placed West under surveillance and on Jan. 27, they raided his Norcross home.

There, agents “discovered evidence of the defendant being involved in the manufacture of pills but did not discover any pills or controlled substances at his apartment,” though they later found keys on a lanyard of West’s that led them to the storage unit.

“Agents travelled to 5365 Jimmy Carter Boulevard in Norcross and learned that the defendant had indeed rented a unit,” the release said. “Upon a search of that unit, agents discovered one large industrial pill press and two smaller pill presses capable of producing over 25,000 pills per hour.”

Officials also found between seven and eight kilograms of white powder inside of the unit, which they say West used to manufacture the pills. More than $265,000 in cash was recovered inside of a box in the storage unit as well.

Agents later found an additional three kilograms of the powder in West’s apartment mailbox.

Evidence presented at Tuesday’s trial showed that after making the pills, West stamped them “to appear like the pharmaceutically prepared pill Oxycodone,” though Georgia Bureau of Investigation lab testing later found that the powder was actually Furanyl Fentanyl and a synthetic substance called U-47700.

Furanyl fentanyl is an analog of the opioid fentanyl — a drug the Drug Enforcement Administration says is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine — meaning its chemical structure is similar to that of fentanyl but not exactly the same.

Its effects are intended to mimic that of fentanyl, though furanyl fentanyl is about five times less potent than fentanyl, according to a 2016 report in the Journal of Clinical Anesthesia.

U-47700, an opioid analgesic drug, is about seven-and-a-half times more potent than morphine, the Journal of Analytical Toxicology says.

At the time of the raid, neither of the substances had a drug-schedule class in Georgia, though they had been outlawed federally.

Since West’s arrest, however, both drugs have been outlawed in the state and have been classified as Schedule-I controlled substances, which the DEA classifies as chemicals with no currently accepted medical use and that have a high potential for abuse.

On Tuesday, DEA Special Agent J. Poole testified that based upon the money found in the storage facility and West’s banking records — documents showed large amounts of money flowing in and out of his account — that he was selling and distributing the pills.

Poole also said it was “very likely” that West was purchasing the furanyl fentanyl and U-47700 from China and having it shipped to him and that there was evidence he may have used Bitcoins through the Dark Web to order the drugs.

West currently remains in the Gwinnett County Jail.

Crime Reporter

Isabel is a crime and health reporter for the Gwinnett Daily Post. She graduated from Emory University in 2016 with a B.A. in international studies. She is originally from the Boston area.