The United States is facing an opioid epidemic of unprecedented proportions. Of the 47,055 lethal drug overdoses that occurred in the U.S. in 2014, 18,893 were related to prescription pain relievers while 10,574 were due to heroin, according to figures from the American Society of Addiction Medicine. A number of factors are contributing to this problem. For example, prescription overprescribing of opioid medications, lack of effective treatments for opioid dependence, and patients self-medication with opioids to treat mental health conditions all play a role.
Another important piece of the puzzle, however, is the rapidly changing face of designer drugs. These opioids emerge on the market before the FDA or state and local governments can ban them. The latest scourge in the opioid epidemic is the synthetic drug U-47700, which has public health officials scrambling to get a ban in place.
What Is U-47700?
U-47700 is a designer drug that has very potent effects. The “U” in its name refers to Upjohn, the company that first discovered the compound. U-47700 is an opioid that is eight times more potent than morphine, meaning that it has powerful analgesic effects but can also induce severe respiratory depression. One can buy the compound online for approximately $40 a gram.
History and Prevalence
Scientists first developed U-47700 in the 1970s from an earlier opioid for use as an analgesic. The development of U-47700 was the result of scientific work identifying compounds that would optimally bind to kappa opioid receptors in the brain. The goal was to find a compound that had strong analgesic effects without the addictive potential or CNS depressant side effects of morphine. U-47700 and similar compounds were used in scientific research, although they were never used medically in the United States.
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Now, U-47700 has started popping up on the illicit drug market. It is one of several synthetic opioids that have been gaining in prevalence over the past few years. Moreover, public health officials believe that laboratories in China are gaining access to patents for these compounds and reverse engineering them to match the chemical structure. They then mass produce U-47700 and other synthetic opioids, selling them online where the market is difficult to regulate.
People who use U-47700 may decide to use the drug recreationally. Many of them have prior experience using prescription painkillers or heroin. U-47700 is billed as a legal alternative with a similar profile of effects to these drugs. Unfortunately, use of U-47700 can be incredibly dangerous and even deadly.
Dangers and Side Effects of U-47700
Like all opioids, U-47700 is a CNS depressant. This means that it causes respiratory and cardiac activity to slow. This can be very dangerous, as using the drug may cause your breathing to stop. The effects of U-47700 are particularly unpredictable because individuals manufacture the drug in illicit facilities in China, meaning that consumers cannot always be sure how much of the drug they are getting. There have been at least 50 deaths from U-47700 nationwide.
Legal Status of U-47700
Currently, U-47700 is legal at the federal level and in most states within the U.S. Ohio recently banned the drug, and other states have legislation pending that would make it illegal to possess or use. The problem is that these designer drugs pop up so quickly, gaining popularity before authorities can enact legislation to control them.
The Drug Enforcement Agency has identified hundreds of synthetic drugs. However, the process to make a drug a Schedule I substance (meaning it has no medical benefit and its sale is prohibited) is onerous. This delay between the identification of dangerous opioids and the ability to make them illegal is costing lives. Additionally, there are few treatment facilities with the resources to effectively help people struggling with dependence on U-47700 or other synthetic opioids. A concerted effort is needed to help these individuals regain their quality of life.