DRUGS

Addicts Worry China’s Fentanyl Ban Will Only Make Things Worse

China has decided to ban the production of four fentanyl-class drugs that have wreaked havoc across the U.S., but some addicts think the ban could make the problem worse

DRUGS
Spencer Platt
Feb 27, 2017 at 2:50 PM ET

On March 1, China will ban the production of a class of synthetic opioids, a move that could have rippling effects across continents and among scores of drug users. The four fentanyl-class substances include carfentanil, an opioid used as an elephant tranquilizer that is often mixed with heroin to make it more potent.

The USDA described the ban as a “game changer” in the fight against the epidemic of opioid abuse in communities across the U.S., and while some addicts welcome the ban, others worry it could make things worse.

“[Sic] this will fuck purity and hurt more people in the end,” one addict wrote in a carfentanil forum on Reddit. “fents were never the devil that people made them to be just sucked cuz they have such a low ld50 [median lethal dose]. im sorry to everyone who lost someone to fent od. but this is not a good thing.”

The four substances that will fall under the new ban are carfentanil, furanyl fentanyl, valeryl fentanyl, and arylfentanyl. Carfentinil—the most potent the four— is about 10,000 times more powerful than morphine and can cause a person to overdose by ingesting amounts in the milligram-range, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. In September, after the drug started popping up on the streets in the U.S., the DEA issued a warning for the general public, and the police and first responders who may be exposed to the drug.

“Fentanyl-related compounds represent a significant and deadly component of the current opioid crisis.  These actions will undoubtedly save American lives and I would like to thank my Chinese counterparts for their actions on this important issue,” Acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg said in the warning. “This announcement demonstrates the continued commitment on the part of both our countries to address this threat wherever possible.”

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The DEA and other government agencies say that the majority of the fentanyl-class substances that find their way into the U.S. via the black market come from China. Much of it is sold over the dark web, where dealers can buy the drug and then mix with heroin to give the heroin a stronger punch. In many cases, the punch is a little too strong and the communities in which they’re sold see huge spikes in overdoses. Twenty seven people died from fentanyl-related overdoses in a 48-hour period in Washington County, Pennsylvania, in August of 2015. Forty six people overdosed in one week in Sacramento in March and April of 2016.

While Drug enforcement officials are applauding the ban, on the simple logic that this will make fentanyl less common, and therefore save lives. But there are addicts who fear that the new ban will force producers of the drug to create even deadlier alternatives.

“As much as I want to agree with the ban… this won’t do anything other than create worse analogs,” another user wrote on a Reddit forum about the ban. “If you understand the SARs [structure-activity relationship] of these opioids, you can keep creating new ultra-potent fentanyl derivatives,” wrote another. But cooking fentanyl is complicated, a member of a federal task force designated to target fentanyl distribution said, more so than other drugs, like crystal meth, which can be produced with little more than a beginner’s chemistry set. Fentanyl requires a certain expertise and somewhat complex lab equipment.

Some, the task force member said, comes from Chinese labs and is easily purchased online and on the deep web and mailed to customers in the U.S. and Canada. Other sources include clandestine labs in both the U.S. and Mexico, which is a much smaller source of the drug than China has been in recent years.

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Over the last few years, I spent time with several people around the country addicted to heroin and other opioids, each of whom said they’ve used fentanyl several times. “It’s hard to find heroin that doesn’t have at least some fentanyl in it,” said Pete, who asked that I use only his first name. Pete died in Rochester, New York, in February of 2016. Some addicts I met actively seek out heroin that is laced with fentanyl, or fentanyl itself.

Andy is an Army veteran who lives with his mom in a seedy section of Rochester who spoke with me for a previous article. After a day of smoking crack, the 46-year-old walked to his friend Brian’s house where he was told one bag of heroin and one bag of cocaine were waiting for him.

“I walk into the garage and Brian was more fucked up than I’d ever seen him,” said Andy, who asked we only use his first name. “And he’s a veteran [heroin user].”

Andy, who also is a seasoned drug abuser, then injected himself with the same heroin that left Brian in a heap on the floor of the garage. “I did the shot and I was like, ‘whoa I gotta go home,’” Andy said. “When I was walking to the door I fell out…I don’t even recall it at all. Next thing I know I wake up and Brian’s standing over me [with the anti-overdose drug Naloxone].”

Andy overdosed again a week later after using heroin purchased from the same dealer who provided the dose that delivered the knockout punch. He was rushed to the hospital where he learned that the heroin he took contained fentanyl. Despite the overdoses, Andy said he will actively seek out dealers if he hears they have fentanyl.

Other addicts are more optimistic about the ban and feel that it’s a step in the direction — especially when it comes to carfentanil.

“I’m all for legalizing drugs, but thank glob [sic] that carfentanyl is being scheduled,” one addict wrote on Reddit. Another added, “that shit is literally a biological weapon.”