Synthetic Drugs Pose 'Unprecedented' Threat For Overdoses, Deaths, Says DEA

By Victoria Kim 06/09/16
"For every one substance we’ve controlled, there are 11 more out there that are uncontrolled."
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Synthetic Drugs Pose 'Unprecedented' Threat For Overdoses, Deaths, Says DEA
Confiscated synthetic drugs. Photo DEA.gov

In the wake of the autopsy report that confirmed that Prince died of fentanyl overdose, the country’s top anti-drug enforcer went before the U.S. Senate to describe the challenge the government is facing in trying to enforce synthetic “designer” drugs. 

On Tuesday, Chuck Rosenberg, acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said at a Senate committee hearing that synthetic drugs like fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, pose an “unprecedented” threat to Americans.

These drugs are chemically derived versions of “real” drugs. You may have heard of them—synthetic cannabinoids (also known as Spice or K2), synthetic stimulants (bath salts, flakka), and synthetic opiates (fentanyl, W-18). Manufacturers are able to evade the law by tweaking the drugs’ chemical composition, making them harder to detect and harder to enforce.

Because many of the drugs exist in this legal gray area, they attract certain people—like soldiers, parolees, athletes—who are subjected to mandatory drug testing.

Rosenberg said that each new fake drug on the market must go through a “clunky and cumbersome” process to be outlawed. “For every one substance we’ve controlled, legislatively or administratively, there are 11 more out there that are uncontrolled,” he said at the hearing. “We’re playing catch-up, and we need your help.”

Rosenberg noted that fentanyl use in particular is rising at an alarming rate across the country. The drug is often used to bolster batches of heroin or disguised as pain medication, Michael Botticelli, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said at the hearing. 

In March, 28 people throughout California fatally overdosed on black market pills designed to resemble Norco—an opioid pain medication for moderate to severe pain—but they actually contained the much stronger fentanyl.

In 2014, opioids—prescription pain medication and heroin—killed more than 28,000 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least half of all opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid, the agency said.

Botticelli said the Obama administration supports legislation that would give prosecutors more range to go after synthetic drug manufacturers. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) suggested forming a committee to determine how to classify each new synthetic drug as they go on the market. Feinstein likened the synthetic drug scourge to the Zika virus, saying the research currently can’t keep pace with the problem. “Here, we’ve got to speed up the ability to enforce,” she said.

Fellow Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) recently proposed imposing tougher penalties for fentanyl possession, but critics say all it would do is incarcerate low-level addicts instead of honing in on the source.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr

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