|Opioids morphine (upper left) and hydrocodone (lower left) and synthetic opioids fentanyl (upper right) and carfentanil (lower right)|
I don't know how widely known the issue with potent opioids on the street is - but I am concerned that the information is not getting out to the people who need to hear it. There are warnings that are read mostly by health care providers. There are politicians talking about tougher penalties and legal approaches to solving the problem. Like many people, I don't believe that the War on Drugs has been very successful. At the same time, there are not many readily available options, there is a historical precedent for control of narcotics, and we will never know what the outcome might have been without legal action against illicit drugs. I don't think that a failed War on Drugs means that there should be mass legalization of drugs. The reason is obvious. We are in the middle of an opioid epidemic that has been initiated and sustained by legal prescription opioids. This epidemic says more about the nature of addiction than legal deterrents. It is very clear that people with addictions will not hesitate to obtain what once were legally prescribed medications and use them. It is very clear that designating legal addictive drugs does not reduce the black market for highly addictive drugs or create more tax revenues for governments - both common arguments for drug legalization. All of these abstract arguments don't reflect what happens on the street.
I have personally talked with hundreds of opioid addicts over the course of my career. In the 1980s and 1990s - there was a small population of users largely due to limited access. Heroin and illicit opioid prices were relatively high and the barriers to use were also high. Widespread exposure to opioids in high school was unheard of. Most of the people I treated were part of a small, relatively fixed population of heroin users and some were on methadone maintenance. That has all drastically changed in the last 15 years.
Now it is common for me to talk with young people in their 20s who were exposed to opioids when they got opioid prescriptions for injuries that used to be treated with ibuprofen or acetaminophen. In some cases their peers in high school suggested they should try taking hydrocodone or oxycodone to get high. In many cases those drugs were scavenged from unused medications in the family medicine cabinet. Like many people in their teens and early 20s there is a cultural movement among users that they have a special body of knowledge about these drugs. That reinforces drug taking behavior and keeps them in contact with people who are actively using and supplying these drugs. In some cases it leads to mistakes in how the drugs are taken and what they are mixed with. Drug users often have illusory relationships with drug dealers that makes it seem like these dealers care more about them than their friends and family do. With continued and progressive use, opioid users might not notice how their judgment is more and more impaired - often to the point that they don't care if they die in the process of trying to get high. To be clear, these people will deny any intent to harm themselves but get to a situation where they are using a questionable amount of drugs and realize it could be a problem but at that point they no longer care. Heroin overdoses and deaths are common in small towns across America. That was unheard of in the 20th century.
Against that backdrop - carfentanil has hit the streets in Minnesota. Carfentanil is an extremely potent opioid that was never intended for therapeutic use in humans. It is a large animal veterinary tranquilizer. Its toxicity in humans is not disputed. The most significant incident was the use of a gas that probably contained carfentanil in a hostage situation at the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow. There were 40 Chechen rebels holding 912 hostages. Russian security forces pumped in a gas that killed all of the rebels and 130 hostages. The gas was described as a sleeping gas and later fentanyl. Recent research suggests that the gas was a combination of carfentanil and remifentanil. Some authors suggest that this was an anesthetic, but I have not been able to find any clinical application of this opioid in humans. Potent opioids like fentanyl are used as anesthetic agents as well as pain medications.
One of the ways that drug dealers amplify their profits is by taking a relatively inexpensive but potent product and diluting it down and selling the diluted product. I have a previous post that shows how drug dealers can take $3800 of the synthetic cannabinoid AMB-FUBINACA and produce about a half million dollars worth of product containing about 64 mg of the original compound sprayed over shredded plant material. I am not about to post how carfentanil can be diluted. There are media reports that talk about how much more potent the drug is relative to both fentanyl and morphine. Anyone trying to guess about how the raw drug can be cut is making a big mistake. The amount of drug that can lead to a lethal overdose is so small that any non-uniform distribution in a powder or tablet can result in a lethal overdose. The drug is so potent that even touching the powder can result in an overdose and health care workers have been warned not to touch the powder for that reason.
The problem is that carfentanil is being sold as a number of different products on the street. People are being given carfentanil as powders and tablets and being told that it is heroin, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and even benzodiazepines. This is an extremely dangerous practice and several Minnesotans have already died because of it.
Don't make the mistake of even trying opioids to get high. If you are currently addicted to opioids go to detox and get treatment. Don't make the mistake that you have another 5 or 10 years to get clean. If you need to take opioids, get Medication Assisted Treatment with buprenorphine or methadone, rather than continuing to use what is available on the street. With FDA approved medications used under a physician's supervision - you know exactly what you are getting. The Minnesota Department of Health recommends education in overdose prevention and naloxone administration.
I can tell you that you can't trust what you are buying on the street.
But deep down you already know that. Carfentanil is just another clear-cut example.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
1: Influx of Fentanyl-laced Counterfeit Pills and Toxic Fentanyl-related Compounds Further Increases Risk of Fentanyl-related Overdose and Fatalities.
2: Health Advisory: Drug Overdose Deaths Linked to Carfentanil Minnesota Department of Health Mar 31, 2017 12:00 CDT
3: Carfentanil Medline references
All molecules at the top of this post were downloaded from PubChem and are in the public domain.