DEA Outlaws New Synthetic Opioid Cited as Cause of Dozens of Deaths

Responding to an “imminent threat to public health and safety,” the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has added another horrifying drug to the schedule I list of controlled substances. U-47700 is a novel synthetic opioid, and its use parallels that of heroin, prescription pain relievers, and other, more exotic opioids.

The emergency scheduling became effective on November 14th. U-47700 will stay on the list for at least two years while the DEA determines if it should be scheduled permanently. Sometimes called U4, the drug is eight times more powerful than morphine and has been cited in connection with dozens of overdose deaths across the U.S. in recent months.
The U in the name stands for Upjohn, a pharmaceutical manufacturer that developed the drug in the 1970s. The substance has never been studied on humans, but can be expected to produce effects similar to those of other potent opioid agonists, including strong analgesia, sedation, euphoria, and respiratory depression which could be harmful or fatal.

In the announcement, the DEA stated that it “received reports of at least 46 confirmed fatalities associated with U-47700.  31 of those fatalities occurred in New York and 10 in North Carolina. From October 2015 to September 2016, DEA received 88 reports from state and local forensic laboratories of U-47700 submissions.”

Until the DEA move, U-47700 was technically a legal substance that could be purchased online. This is how it apparently ended up in the hands of two 13-year-old boys in Utah. Ryan Ainsworth and Grant Seaver of Park City, UT fatally overdosed on U-47700, the Utah State Medical Examiner’s Office determined.
In May, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed an executive order permitting the Ohio Board of Pharmacy to classify U-47700 as a prohibited drug immediately instead of waiting 90 days for a ban to take effect. Kasich’s order called the opioid “a significant public health risk” in a state that has been hit particularly hard by the current opioid epidemic. Several other states had taken similar action to ban U-47700 before it was scheduled by the federal DEA.  

The emergence of new or previously unused synthetic drugs continues to create serious problems for law enforcement and addiction professionals. In September, the DEA issued a severe warning about the elephant tranquilizer Carfentanil.  Most synthetic opioids like U-47700 or Carfentanil come to the U.S. from labs in China via Mexico but they can also be produced locally using recipes found on the internet.

The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (UNODC) estimates that “new psychoactive substances” (NPS) are emerging globally at an approximate rate of one a week.

According to the latest UNODC’s World Drug Report, “The NPS market continues to be characterized by the large number of new substances being reported. Although data collection for 2015 is still in progress, 75 new substances have been reported to UNODC for the first time, compared with a total of only 66 new substances reported in 2014.”

With that many new substances becoming available so frequently and often with unknown properties, a comprehensive assessment of a substance use disorder and an evaluation of treatment options are becoming ever more complicated.