In October and November of 2016, the media addressed a new potential drug menace. Pink, a dangerous new synthetic opioid, claimed dozens of lives before the DEA enacted an emergency ban. But as we know all too well, making a drug illegal will not end its use. This terrifying designer drug is already out there, and those who wish to get their hands on it will likely find ways of doing so. How can law enforcement agencies fight this new threat? Well, like most things, it begins with developing an understanding of the issue.
We’ll get to the DEA ban—which is actually temporary—in a minute. First, we’d like to talk about what Pink is and why it has proven to be so dangerous. Like many other synthetic drugs, a lot of it comes down to availability. Younger individuals find out about a new legal high and decide to experiment. Without much experience in drug use, they know little about dosage and methods of administration. As a result, many younger abusers overdo it and push their bodies beyond the limit. But even for more experienced drug users, Pink possesses a few traits that make it much more dangerous than most other synthetic drugs.
Aside from the nature of Pink and details on the DEA ban, we’ll also discuss the potential future of Pink and other synthetic drugs. In order to fight a drug threat, we must look beyond the past and present. We must consider the manner in which such threats may evolve in the coming years. With this information, we can build necessary education and awareness, enabling potential users to avoid addiction to this new drug. In fact, given Pink’s basic nature, drug users might want to avoid experimenting with this drug at all.
What Is Pink?
Pink is the street name given to U-47700. This chemical compound originated as a potential pain treatment. It never saw this use, however, due to a lack of human testing. Eventually, Chinese labs reconstructed the compound to sell as a synthetic opioid. Users generally flock to Pink due to its unusually high potency—eight times greater than that of heroin. Pink is also in the same family as fentanyl, a drug often mixed with heroin to make it stronger. In other words, Pink shares traits with drugs already known to endanger their users. Not only that, but its heightened strength makes it potentially more dangerous than heroin and fentanyl combined.
Users can buy U-47700 in a number of forms. More prominent forms include pills and powder, although users can even acquire Pink in the form of an intoxicating mist. They purchase the drug online, sometimes at low prices such as around $5, give or take. Shippers discreetly label packaging and credit card statements, allowing users to retain anonymity. This makes it more difficult for the post office to catch such products as they pass through. And since users acquire the drug online, even underage teens with access to their parents’ credit cards can acquire it.
Side effects of Pink bear similarities to those of most opiates such as morphine or heroin. The primary difference is that Pink has a shorter duration of action. Users take the drug for more desirable side effects such as relaxation and euphoria. But those who use Pink will also find themselves subject to such potential side effects as severe nerve damage and rectal bleeding. In severe cases, death by overdose may occur. According to Park City Police Chief Wade Carpenter:
“This stuff is so powerful that if you touch it, you could go into cardiac arrest.”
As of October 2016, Pink was found guilty of causing at least 80 deaths in the United States. This includes two 13-year-olds boys who overdosed in Utah. Outside of the United States, countries such as Sweden and Finland have seen fit to ban Pink due to reports of overdose deaths. Overdose deaths due to synthetic opioids rose from 730 to 5,544 between 1999 and 2014. Meanwhile, prescription overdose deaths rose from 8,050 to 28,647 during the same period. If you break these numbers down, you can see that while prescription opioid deaths almost quadrupled, synthetic opioid deaths rose at nearly twice the rates. This indicates that synthetic opioids such as Pink are rapidly becoming a major problem. The DEA’s ban provides only one of many measures necessary in order to combat this growing issue.
Prior to the DEA ban, four states—Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Wyoming—already placed bans against Pink. In November, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin added the drug to the list of Schedule I substances in his state. But the more prominent ruling comes from the DEA. On November 7, 2016, the DEA filed a temporary placement of U-47700 into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. This status went into effect one week later.
The DEA’s ban on Pink is not permanent, but it does last for two years. After these two years expire, the DEA may seek an option for an extension of one more year. They can then use this year to perform more research on Pink and its possible effects on the user. In other words, Pink may very well remain illegal for at least three years. If the DEA can provide data which evidences the dangers of this synthetic drug, Pink may permanently remain a Schedule I controlled substance. Unfortunately, this may only exacerbate the problem.
At least, that’s what happened with synthetic marijuana. When bans on synthetic marijuana began popping up across numerous states, manufacturers responded by releasing a new generation of the drug. They released this new generation so quickly, it appeared that they already had their new products ready to go in case of a ban. For all we know, manufacturers of Pink have taken similar possibilities into account. Even if they managed to overlook this possibility, they only require a synthetic compound bearing traits similar to those of carfentanil or furanylfentanyl in order to keep Pink on the market. This becomes more frightening when considering the penchant of many users to mix Pink with other drugs, as noted in the DEA’s final order:
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. U-47700 has also been encountered in glassine bags and envelopes and knotted corners of plastic bags. These clandestine forms of distribution demonstrate the abuse of this substance as a replacement for heroin or other opioids, either knowingly or unknowingly. Further, U-47700 has been encountered as a single substance as well as in combination with other substances, including heroin, fentanyl, and furanyl fentanyl in drug exhibits.
Manufacturers may also create entirely different compounds under the same name. Again, we may use synthetic marijuana as an example. Not all second-generation strains of synthetic marijuana utilized cannabinoids. In fact, many did not even opt for a reasonable facsimile. Instead, many manufacturers use other inhalants such as acetone—the active ingredient in nail polish remover—to provide a cheap and potentially deadly high. Pink might easily follow a similar trajectory.
The DEA is undoubtedly right to ban this menace. That said, the sheer number of legal loopholes present in the manufacture of synthetic drugs makes it possible for Pink to become an even greater threat now that current forms cannot be obtained legally. And given the DEA’s suggestion that some Pink users took the drug unknowingly, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that dealers and manufacturers were lying to their customers about the product’s ingredients. That leaves us rather concerned about the future of Pink, as well as that of its potentially unwitting users.
The Future of Pink
Since the DEA ban, a number of sites continue to sell Pink. If anything, it seems that many sites are taking advantage of the ban as an excuse to raise prices. But eventually, users will likely begin turning toward other synthetic drugs. As of November 29, the DEA ruled furanylfentanyl a Schedule I controlled substance, eliminating at least one formerly legal substitute. Nonetheless, U-47700 and furanylfentanyl make up only two of many synthetic opioids. Furthermore, some fear that users now denied legal access to these drugs may turn to the real thing. With the United States in the midst of a growing opioid epidemic, this possibility concerns many in the treatment community.
Prevention of further threats such as U-47700 and furanylfentanyl may require an overhaul of our current laws. Not only do foreign sellers take advantage of shipping loopholes—an issue President-elect Trump intends to address—but even local sellers manage to sell potentially harmful drugs until the DEA steps in. They usually do this by simply labeling a product “not for human consumption,” despite a common understanding to the contrary. Furthermore, these products often fail to include a list of ingredients. This means that users often don’t even know what they are ingesting. We must therefore fight these drugs through education and awareness, alerting users to the dangers of blind drug abuse.
Education and awareness will help, but they will only get us so far. In the meantime, the DEA must continue pushing for emergency bans on harmful substances. Treatment centers must also continue helping addicts realize the dangers of their lifestyle through intensive care involving cognitive behavioral therapy. And if we know someone who might be endangering their life by using Pink or any other synthetic opioid, we must speak up. We cannot let our loved ones die in agony at the hands of this fatal laboratory experiment. The time to act is now.