written for Inspire Malibu
The crisis of opioid addiction in the United States is an ever-evolving tragedy. Healthcare professionals, state and federal legislatures and law enforcement have, so far, been unable to stop or contain the spread of opioids and heroin spiked with even more powerful and deadly drugs. In fact, it has become increasingly difficult for scientists to keep pace with new heroin cocktails.
“Gray death,” a mixture of heroin, fentanyl, carfentanil and the synthetic opioid U-47700, is the latest concoction responsible for thousands of fatal overdoses in the past several months.
At the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, chemist Deneen Kilcrease tells Business Insider, “Gray death is one of the scariest combinations that I have ever seen in nearly 20 years of forensic chemical drug analysis.”
The mixture varies in texture and consistency, but tends to look similar to chunky gravel or fine concrete powder, which is why investigators dubbed the cocktail “gray death.” While this particular blend, so far showing up in Georgia, Alabama and Ohio, is new to experts, the opioids that make it up are well known and incredibly dangerous, even in contact with bare skin.
In addition to heroin, “gray death” includes the following substances:
- Fentanyl is 100 times more powerful than morphine and, typically, only gets prescribed to terminal cancer patients coping with intense pain. An amount equal to the size of a sugar crystal can cause death
- Carfentanil, a tranquilizer for large animals like elephants, rhino and moose, is an opioid 100 times more powerful than fentanyl. Veterinarians only handle the substance when wearing a mask and gloves as a dose similar in size to a grain of salt is lethal in humans
- U-47700, also known on the streets as “pink” or “U4,” is a synthetic, designer opioid generally developed in underground labs overseas. Officials have identified the substance, by itself, as responsible for 46 deaths from 2015 to 2016 in New York, Texas, Ohio, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and North Carolina
Drug dealers have little problem obtaining these controlled substances, which are manufactured, for the most part, in illegal laboratories in China and, in some cases, Mexico. The drugs are easily ordered online and shipped through the mail or smuggled across the U.S. borders. Cutting heroin with these cheaper drugs increases the potency, makes their supply of heroin last longer and, as a result, is more profitable.
The risk to users is incalculable. In almost every case, addicts have no idea what the heroin they’ve purchased for $10 or $20 contains increasing the likelihood of overdose whether it’s snorted, smoked or used intravenously.
“It’s mad science and the guinea pigs are the American public,” Russ Baer, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration, told NBC News. He added that while the ingredients come from outside the country, gray death “is made in America.”
Despite the ongoing epidemic of opioid abuse, addiction and overdoses, the issue is not receiving the media attention it once was. Federal policies and programs in place as recently as last year, to help addicts get access to treatment and assist agencies in combatting the problem, are in flux and may not be continued.
Overdose survivor and recovering addict, Richie Webber, based in Ohio, told Business Insider that when he talks to users, he suggests that they not use drugs alone in case of overdose. “Every time you shoot up, you’re literally playing Russian roulette with your life,” he says.