Dan Corkery: A mixture of drugs ushers in 'gray death'

Dan Corkery: A mixture of drugs ushers in 'gray death'

As if heroin and opioid abuse were not bad enough, a new mixture of drugs is showing up in some of America's cities.

Called "gray death," the concoction includes heroin and three synthetic opioids:

— Fentanyl (used for patients in severe pain; 100 times more potent than morphine).

— Carfentanil (an analog of fentanyl, but 100 times more potent; used on elephants and other large animals).

— And U-47700 (a Schedule I drug, that is, no accepted medical use).

The Associated Press reported last week that overdoses from this street mixture — which looks like concrete mix — have occurred in Alabama, Georgia and Ohio.

"Gray death is one of the scariest combinations that I have ever seen in nearly 20 years of forensic chemistry drug analysis," Deneen Kilcrease, manager of the chemistry section at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, told the AP.

The rise in heroin use is tied to the overprescribing and abuse of pain medication, such as hydrocodone and oxycodone. Once the prescription runs out or the drug user can't afford black-market pills, he often turns to heroin.

But unlike regulated prescription drugs, street heroin's purity and dosage are unknown to the buyer.

And so are its additives.

So far, gray death has not cast its shadow on Champaign County, based on interviews with the Champaign County coroner and University of Illinois police.

"We get heroin by itself," Coroner Duane Northrup said of narcotics that determined to have caused a death. "Sometimes we get heroin with versions of fentenyl."

U-47700 was linked to at least one death last year, he said.

So far, there have been no local deaths involving carfentanil.

But that's not the case in the Springfield area. Last month, the Sangamon County coroner said toxicology reports showed that two men died from an overdose of the elephant tranquilizer and heroin.

"We see many families torn apart by this addiction," Coroner Cinda Edwards said, "and the use of carfentanil is yet another twist in the treacherous path of opiate addiction."

UI police Officer Ryan Snow, a certified drug recognition expert, says there's a reason why heroin is not common college campuses.

He calls it "the bubble effect" — some drugs are socially acceptable and others aren't.

For example, ecstacy (MDMA) and cocaine, he said, "are deemed appropriate to be on college campuses."

But if you were to ask a student if he's tried heroin, he said, the reaction would be: "Are you crazy?"

Yet, students might admit to trying "pink," the street name for U-47700.

"They don't understand that it's just a synthetic form of heroin, of opium," Snow said. "But because it's not called 'heroin,' they say it's more socially acceptable."

His observations aren't limited to the UI campus. Along with UI Lt. Joe McCullough and Dave Clausen, he has a side business called Prevention Leaders. They visit other college campuses to train others on identifying drugs and preventing their use.

Heroin mixtures are "probably going to end up coming to college campuses," Snow said, "but not because the kids think it is what it is."

Users are not alone in not knowing what they're taking. Police have a hard time recognizing these new drugs.

"It kind of looks like ... a piece of gravel or something," Snow said.

And that's a danger to any officer not wearing gloves. Synthetic opioids can be absorbed through the skin, potentially delivering a lethal dose.

"It's a cat-and-mouse game," he said.

"But at this point, the cat's losing — pretty bad. This new stuff is developing so quickly, that we just cannot keep up."

Dan Corkery is a member of The News-Gazette's editorial board. His email is dcorkery@news-gazette.com, and his phone is 351-5218.

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