The United States is in the middle of an opioid abuse epidemic. Government officials, healthcare providers, and law enforcement professionals are working to make it harder to divert prescription opioids and to get both the illegal drug heroin and prescription narcotics for nonmedical use. It is estimated that around 30 million people may abuse opioid drugs on a global scale, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) publishes. The DEA hopes to slow the abuse of these drugs by tightening the reins on their prescription access and making it harder to divert and abuse these drugs.
As one drug becomes more expensive on the street and harder to get, another rears its head in its place, however. Enter the synthetic opioid designer drug U-47700, which has a similar action to other opioid drugs, although its chemical makeup is different enough that the drug is currently unregulated and unscheduled by the DEA. Labeled a “research chemical,” U-47700 is making its way into the hands of individuals looking for an opioid “high.”
From the Lab to the Streets
Originally formulated by the pharmaceutical company Upjohn back in the 1970s, U-47700 is synthesized in a lab as a man-made opioid-type drug. The drug was initially looked at for its sedative and pain-relieving properties, although it was never marketed and was shelved for years. Recently, U-47700 has been making a comeback, and Fox News reports that chemists and chemical companies in China may have rediscovered the drug and are now manufacturing it. Individuals seeking an opioid high can then order the research chemical online and have it delivered straight from China to their doorstep in the United States.
The compound U-47700 may be sold in liquid, powder, or pill form, and it can then be swallowed, snorted, smoked, injected, or inserted into the body for a mellow and euphoric high. In March 2016 in Ohio, 500 pills that looked exactly like the opioid paU-47700nkiller oxycodone were seized and found to be counterfeit opioid pills containing U-47700 instead, the DEA reports.
Drugs that are made in illegal labs to mimic the effects of other drugs and meant for recreational use are often called “designer drugs.” Not technically illegal yet, many states are rushing to regulate U-47700 because of its potentially toxic effects. Designer drugs are highly unpredictable and may have tragic consequences of use.
Hazards of U-47700 Abuse
The drug U-47700 is not approved by the FDA for human use; therefore, it is untested in how it might interact in a person’s body. The trouble with buying drugs that are made in illegal laboratories and not scheduled or controlled by the FDA or DEA is that one may never know exactly what is in the drug they are purchasing. These chemicals could be “cut” with any number of toxins or chemicals. It is impossible to know the toxicity of a drug like U-47700. Even though the drug is not considered illegal at this point, it is still inherently dangerous and unknown.
The Dallas Observer warns that U-47700 is about 7.5 times more potent than morphine. The DEA classifies morphine as a Schedule II controlled substance, which is the highest control status for a drug with medically accepted uses. It is used to control severe pain and considered very potent. The fact that U-47700 is more potent than morphine makes it highly dangerous.
The Journal Times reports that at least 50 people have died from a U-47700 overdose in the United States due to a toxic buildup in the bloodstream. Opioid drugs like U-47700 slow down the rate at which a person breathes as well as lower heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure. During an overdose, individuals may stop breathing altogether, and the heart may fail. Additional signs of an opioid overdose include:
- Chest pain
- Weak pulse
- Blue color to nails, lips, and skin
- Clammy and cool skin
- Pinpoint pupils
- Muscle weakness
- Tremors or seizures
- Extreme drowsiness and/or loss of consciousness
Taking U-47700 by itself is extremely dangerous, but mixing it with alcohol or another drug is even more hazardous. These additional substances, especially if they are also central nervous system depressants, can interact with each other and exacerbate the side effects of both substances. Underlying medical conditions may contribute to an adverse reaction when taking U-47700 as well. Since this compound has not been approved for human use, how it may work in a person’s body is largely unknown, making it highly dangerous no matter how much is taken.
Getting Help for Designer Drug Abuse
If U-47700 is taken on a regular basis, individuals may develop a dependence on it. Since it is so potent, it may not take very many uses for this dependency to form. Physical drug dependence is caused when the brain no longer functions as it did without the presence of the drug. Opioid drugs artificially increase levels of dopamine, a pleasure-inducing chemical that naturally occurs in the brain, and binds to opioid receptors. When the opioid then wears off, dopamine levels drop, leaving individuals feeling depressed, fatigued, anxious, restless, agitated, and irritable. With repeated use of a mind-altering drug such as U-47700, the brain may stop making dopamine in the necessary amounts to feel pleasure without the drug. The areas in the brain that handle reward, impulse control, mood regulation, and short-term memory are negatively impacted. A person may then feel mentally “out of it” and have difficulties thinking straight, sleeping, and enjoying life without the drug.
In addition to the emotional side effects, U-47700 also depresses many of the autonomic and life-sustaining functions of the central nervous system. When the drug processes itself out of the body, these functions may rebound. Blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, and respiration levels may then spike, and individuals may experience symptoms similar to a really bad case of the flu. These physical and emotional side effects are called withdrawal symptoms and require specialized treatment to manage.
Medical detox is generally considered the optimal method for managing withdrawal symptoms for opioid dependence, especially with an unpredictable drug like U-47700. During medical detox, individuals are constantly monitored for changes in their vital signs, ensuring that they remain within safe levels. Medications, often opioid substitution medications such as methadone or buprenorphine, may be used to replace U-47700 in the brain to keep withdrawal from being as significant. These medications can then be tapered down slowly and over a set amount of time until the body is completely free of drugs. Mental health support and encouragement are also important during detox while the body is processing out the toxins. Medical detox is typically provided in a specialized facility and lasts about 3-7 days on average.
Medical detox is only part of a treatment plan for drug dependence that also should include therapies, counseling, skills training, and relapse prevention techniques. Physical drug dependence often accompanies an addiction involving a drug such as U-47700. Addiction occurs when a person loses the ability to control their drug use and continues to take U-47700 despite any and all consequences that doing so may create. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) publishes that nearly 2 million individuals suffered from an addiction involving a pain reliever in 2014. Addiction is a disease that, like other diseases, requires specialized and professional care to treat. Behavioral therapies teach people how to think and act in a healthy manner as well as teach coping mechanisms for stress and skills for more effective communication. Addiction treatment can help individuals to build a stable base for recovery as well as provide the necessary tools for maintaining it.