Search for Opioid 'Holy Grail' Is Killing People 40 Years Later

Synthetic opioid U-47700 has killed at least 125 people in 2016
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 5, 2016 2:03 PM CDT
Search for Opioid 'Holy Grail' Is Killing People 40 Years Later
Example of a webpage selling opioids.   (AP Photo)

(Newser) – "The bad guys, I hate to say it, are smart," a former DEA agent tells the Wall Street Journal. "They always seem to be a step ahead of the regulators.” The UN estimates that chemical labs around the world are cranking out "new psychoactive substances" weekly, so fast the DEA and other law enforcement agencies can't keep up. The Journal takes a deep look at one of those substances, a synthetic opioid called U-47700, that caused 125 fatal overdoses—at least—in the first nine months of 2016. U-47700 was created by a US pharmaceutical company in the 1970s while searching for the "Holy Grail," a painkiller as strong as morphine but without the risk. It was abandoned after tests on mice showed it caused dependence.

Enter unscrupulous foreign labs—many of them in China—which officials say are combing through old patent records to recreate U-47700 and other abandoned drugs. The labs sell these new versions of old synthetic drugs online, labeling them research chemicals not for human consumption to give themselves legal cover. The first fatal U-47700 overdose in the US was believed to be in May 2015. The DEA didn't move to add it to the list of illegal drugs until September 2016, the same month two 13-year-old friends in Utah overdosed on it. It probably won't help. One former U-47700 user says Chinese labs "have a backup list a mile long," which means the next U-47700 is on its way—if it isn't here already. Read the full story here. (Read more opioids stories.)

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