Up until about ten years ago, the clients I treated in my job as an addiction therapist ran the gamut of drugs. There were heroin and painkiller addicts, coke, crack, methamphetamine, marijuana and ecstasy abusers, and of course alcoholics, but they pretty much ran the spectrum of drugs. Like electronic music (remember Dubstep?) and distressed jeans, drugs used to go in and out of fashion.
But today opioids rule, and they’re not going away. Opioids are becoming the religion of the masses. (Clinically speaking, “opiates” are drugs derived directly from the poppy plant, while “opioids” are synthetic.)
There was a time when China White heroin was considered the most powerful of all the narcotics. With the proliferation of synthetic drugs, though, that’s not even close to true now. The synthetic drugs are many times more powerful than heroin. And they’re killing more people every year. The number of overdose deaths caused by synthetic drugs — drugs produced in labs and not prescribed by doctors, and mostly produced in China — rose from 730 in 1999 to 5,544 in 2014. By themselves, or mixed with other drugs, in in pill or powder form, synthetic narcotics are killing thousands of people across the country.
A recovering addict laments, “The drug scene used to change every couple of months. But now it’s all opioids. With the Internet, and especially with China in the game, the ways you can get high and the ways you can die are mind-boggling.”
THE NEW HEROIN
One thing is certain: Today’s heroin is not your Mom and Dad’s heroin ― assuming Mom and Dad were heroin users. Back in the day, there was brown heroin, black heroin, black tar heroin, and China White, which was considered the crème de la crème. But El Chapo and other Mexican “drug lords” changed all that. With weed becoming legal in more states practically every day, there was no more money to be made selling illegal marijuana. So the Mexican cartels converted the marijuana fields to poppy fields and began growing the finest poppies Poppy had ever seen. That alone would have been enough to secure the heroin market for the Mexicans.
The Mexicans began adding it to the heroin, creating a strain of heroin that heroin addicts had never seen before. (Now they’re adding even stronger “designer” opioids. See below.) Once seasoned heroin users tasted some of the New Heroin, they couldn’t get high off the Old Heroin.
Most of the synthetic drugs we’ve uncovered are cousins of fentanyl, and Carfentanil, or carfentanyl, is one of those drugs. It is the hottest new drug among opioid addicts. It’s not a “designer drug” but it’s the prototype for almost every designer opioid. It is marketed under the trade name Wildnil and is used as an elephant tranquilizer.
Carfentanil is 10,000 times more potent than morphine, which makes it extremely dangerous to even touch. Lab technicians and police who handle it must have close at hand some Naloxone, or Narcan, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. Carfentanil, like all opioids, can cause respiratory depression, and it can kill a person in a heartbeat. Carfentanil is classified as Schedule II under the Controlled Substances Act in the United States.
Carfentanil, like fentanyl many times over, is a stealthy killer when added to heroin, and that is being done all over the US and Europe. Until recently it was easy to buy carfentanil online, and the source was almost always China. China recently banned carfentanil, but equally potent analogs are being manufactured on the daily.
PINK (U-47700) AND OTHER DESIGNER OPIOIDS
Then there are the “designer” opioids, which represent by far the biggest threat to the well-being of opioid addicts all over the world. To choose just one example, Pink, better known by chemists as U-47700, is also a fentanyl analog, but it’s not available by prescription and it’s one of literally scores of designer opioids that threaten to take even Big Pharma out of the game. It’s eight times stronger than heroin, and the DEA last year received reports of at least 47 confirmed fatalities associated with Pink.
It’s called “Pink” because of the pinkish hue of the powder, and users are often unaware they’re using it because it’s often mixed with heroin or other opioids like fentanyl. It also comes in sacks with stamped logos, it can be pressed into pills, or sold as a powder.
Pink and similar substances are usually manufactured overseas, and China leads the way in illicit drug labs. It goes without saying that, because it’s manufactured secretly in faraway labs, users have no guarantee or idea what they’re getting.
The DEA has placed U-47700 into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, effective on November 14th. So far, however, only four states have made Pink illegal. It can still be ordered online and delivered to your mailbox.
Krokodil is a notorious drug that became popular in Russia around 2002, although desomorphine was actually invented in 1932 and patented in 1934. It started appearing in the US in 2013. It is a powerful, fast-acting derivative of morphine that is eight to ten times more potent.
What makes it so popular is that it is powerful, cheap, and easy to make. All you need are codeine and iodine, and red phosphorus, which you can get from match strikers. (The process is not unlike the process used to make methamphetamine from Sudafed.) The high is intense and can last a couple of hours, and it takes less than an hour to make the drug. It’s cheap (about a tenth the price of heroin), so it’s often found in poor areas.
What makes it so notorious is that there is a myth that desomorphine itself can rot the skin (and make your skin look like a crocodile’s, hence the name), and cause limbs to atrophy and fall off, like leprosy. There is anecdotal evidence that it can cause permanent damage, speech impediments and nervous twitches. The truth is that krokodil itself does none of those things. Intravenous drug use in a dirty environment, combined with unsanitary manufacturing conditions, can cause a wide range of deadly and ugly infections, including MRSA, a tough bacterial infection that causes skin lesions and is resistant to many antibiotics. Those factors can cause crocodile-like skin, horrible abscesses, and, yes, loss of limbs, just like leprosy. But those same things happen to recreational intravenous users of any drug, especially heroin.
Make no mistake, “Krokodil” is no joke – millions of people have injected the drug, a billion doses have been manufactured, and many have died. It’s viciously addictive, withdrawal is reputedly much worse than heroin, and it’s impossible to control.
DESIGNER AND HOMEMADE DRUGS: IMPOSSIBLE TO CONTROL?
Of the drugs mentioned above, the most dangerous by far, and the biggest threat to the well-being of young mind travelers all over the world, are the designer opioids. New designer opioids are cropping up every day, it seems, with names like MT-45, U-47700, U-48800, 3-Methylbutyrfentanyl, 3-MBF, 3-Methylfentanyl, and 3-MF, to mention a few of hundreds. Emergency scheduling of dangerous drugs such as U-47700 on a temporary basis is one of the tools DEA uses to combat the new street drugs. But drug chemists/designers in China stay one step ahead and are constantly creating new opioids. They’re almost impossible to regulate because illegal chemists change a molecule or two when they feel the heat on their latest creation.
Users don’t know what they’re getting, since it’s impossible to check out the web sellers, many of whom operate on the Dark Web. They are impossible for authorities to keep up with, since a simple molecule change to a drug like carfentanil can make it completely different chemically, with similar or even stronger effects.
Ryan Hampton, a HuffPost contributor, a recovering heroin addict and a staunch crusader in the fight against opioid addiction, laments, “”It seems that when we take one step forward we take two steps back. This epidemic is only going to get worse. The inability of the federal government to take immediate action on synthetic opioids arriving in the states by the masses raises a huge red flag. This underground, unregulated market has been the cause for tens of thousands of deaths just in the past year.”
Certainly, the way to stanch the flow of opioids into the US is through education and legislation, not incarceration, which is money down the drain. Education and rehabilitation are actually profitable enterprises because, for one, addiction costs this country more than $600 billion a year, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). NIDA also asserts that “Every dollar invested in addiction treatment programs yields a return of between $4 and $7 in reduced drug-related crime, criminal justice costs, and theft. When savings related to healthcare are included, total savings can exceed costs by a ratio of 12 to 1.”
Unfortunately, we’re coming to a stage in the technology of drugs when legislation and education may not be enough. The best prevention might begin where you are right now, at your computer, and in your mailbox.
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