Street Drug Sold as Norco Contained Fentanyl and Unknown Synthetic Opioid

By Paul Gaita 08/03/16

A new study examined the illegal "Norco" pills that caused multiple overdoses in California this past spring to determine the contents of the imposter opioid.

Street Drug Sold as Norco Contained Fentanyl and Unknown Synthetic Opioid

A street drug sold as the prescription painkiller Norco has been found to contain two dangerous synthetic opioids—fentanyl and a relatively unknown drug called U-47700—neither of which are typically found in Norco. The drug examined in a recent case study was purchased in California, where an outbreak of counterfeit Norco overdoses and deaths claimed 14 lives this past spring.

The synthesis was reported in a new study published online in Annals of Emergency Medicine by researchers from the University of California, San Francisco-Fresno, who were alerted to the drug after an emergency room patient had been rendered unconscious after taking three pills of what she’d believed to have been Norco, which usually contain acetaminophen and hydrocodone. The patient, a 41-year-old woman who had purchased the drug on the street to treat her chronic back pain, was revived through intravenous admission of naloxone, and later reported that she had never experienced a similar reaction with previous doses of Norco.

Though similar in appearance to Norco—the pills she had taken even showed the imprint of the manufacturer, Watson, on their surface—they were beige in color, not white, which suggested to doctors that the medication might be counterfeit. Subsequent tests revealed that her blood contained significant amounts of both fentanyl and U-47700, a synthetic opioid patented in 1978 as an analgesic. Like fentanyl, it is more powerful than morphine, though at a significantly lower rate (7.5 times the potency compared with 50 to 100 times the potency), but the study’s authors concluded that the two drugs could lead to “unanticipated opioid toxicity” even in individuals with a tolerance for opioids.

The study’s findings suggest that dangerous combinations of drugs sold on the street as Norco may continue to be a problem for medical professionals and emergency providers in the future. Though more than 100 psychoactive substances were banned in China (where many illicit synthetic drugs originate from) in 2015, a host of others like U-47700 have since entered the black market and remain available for illegal manufacturers to process as Norco or other prescription painkillers.

The study notes that public interest in the drug has increased in recent months, as evidenced by Google Trend search data; the drug is currently sold as a “research chemical” on the Internet. Pills confiscated during the Northern California outbreak were revealed to contain an array of compounds, from fentanyl with and without hydrocodone, as well as acetaminophen, the sedative/antihistamine promethazine, and cocaine. 

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.