DEA Bans Opioid Found in Fake Painkillers

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is banning a powerful synthetic opioid linked to dozens of fatal overdoses -- including the death of the late pop star Prince.

Effective Monday, the DEA is classifying U-47700 as a Schedule I controlled substance, making the sale and possession of the drug a felony. Known in law enforcement circles as “pink,” U-47700 is about 8 times stronger than morphine. It was originally developed in the 1970’s as a prescription pain reliever, but was never used for that purpose.  

U-47700 is now being manufactured by illicit drug labs in China and smuggled into the United States, according to the DEA.

“Evidence suggests that the pattern of abuse of U-47700 parallels that of heroin, prescription opioid analgesics, and other novel opioids. Seizures of U-47700 have been encountered in powder form and in counterfeit tablets that mimic pharmaceutical opioids,” the DEA said in a notice published in the Federal Register.

“Abusers of U-47700 may not know the origin, identity, or purity of this substance, thus posing significant adverse health risks when compared to abuse of pharmaceutical preparations of opioid analgesics, such as morphine and oxycodone.”

The DEA said at least 46 overdose deaths have been linked to U-47700 since 2015, including 31 in New York and 10 in North Carolina.

The actual number of deaths is probably higher, according to NMS Labs, a private forensic laboratory in Pennsylvania. The lab said it confirmed U-47700 in toxicology tests involving over 80 deaths nationwide in the first nine months of 2016.

“The recent rise in use of these novel drugs of abuse is contributing to the spiraling of deaths associated with opioid abuse, and is being seen across the country. Their incidence of use is probably underestimated since these drugs are frequently a blind spot for many forensic labs, because they are novel and the labs are not looking for them in their routine procedures,” Dr. Barry Logan, Chief of Forensic Toxicology at NMS Labs said in a statement.

U-47700 and fentanyl, another synthetic opioid, were part of a deadly cocktail of drugs found in toxicology tests on Prince, who died of an accidental drug overdose in April. Investigators believe the musician may have thought he was taking a legitimate painkiller.

Fentanyl and U-47700 have also been linked to an outbreak of deaths and hospitalizations in California involving counterfeit pain medication. A 41-year old woman who suffers from chronic back pain purchased pills on the street designed to look like Norco, the brand name of a prescription drug that contains hydrocodone.  

The woman became unconscious within 30 minutes of taking three of the counterfeit tablets. She next remembers waking up in a hospital emergency room and told hospital staff the pills had the markings of Norco, but were beige in color instead of the usual white. A blood serum analysis revealed the woman had significant amounts of fentanyl and U-47700 in her system.

Fentanyl is legally prescribed in patches and lozenges to treat severe chronic pain, but the DEA believes “hundreds of thousands of counterfeit prescription drugs” laced with illicit fentanyl are on the black market. The agency predicts more fake pills will be manufactured because of heavy demand and the “enormous profit potential” of counterfeit medication.

This temporary scheduling of U-47700 as a controlled substance will last for 24 months, with a possible 12-month extension if the DEA needs more data to determine whether it should be permanently banned.