The Drug Enforcement Administration is poised to ban a little-known drug called U-47700, also known colloquially as “pink.”
The agency, which has the power to ban drugs for two or three years “to avoid an imminent hazard to the public safety,” said Thursday the new regulation will take effect Monday.
The DEA has cited 46 deaths in the United States over the last two years in which U-47700 is a confirmed cause. That doesn’t include the widely reported deaths of two 13-year-olds in Utah that were purportedly linked to the drug.
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“Pink” was first developed in the mid-1970s, by researchers at the chemical company Upjohn (which gave the drug its “U”) who were looking for new painkillers. It is just one of many synthetic drugs that are flooding onto the streets so fast that toxicologists and law enforcement can’t keep up.
“We’re seeing new ones every week, or at least every month. We’ve identified over 400 designer synthetic drugs in the last five or six years,” said Rusty Payne, a DEA spokesperson. “So much stuff is coming over that’s being manufactured in these labs in China and elsewhere, people don’t even know what they’re getting.”
“The whole Russian roulette factor is just heartbreaking because it just goes to show you that any time you mess around with something, it could be your last act,” Payne said.
Little is known about how exactly U-47700 works on the brain, besides the fact that it is an opioid, can cause respiratory depression, and can be blocked with naloxone.
Dr. Aaron Schneir, a medical toxicologist at the University of California, San Diego Health System, helped in a case of a 22-year-old who had overdosed on the drug earlier this year. At the time, he said, there was not even a sample against which to confirm the molecule’s identity. Since then, though, the number of reports has shot up, and a test has become available.
Experts know the risks of the drug, but aren’t sure that making illegal, as the DEA will in classifying it as Schedule 1, will actually stop people from using it.
“It’s really hard to police, because you can order it right online from labs in China,” said Payne.
“There’s no question it’s dangerous, as other opioids are, particularly these new ones that have never been studied, because there is no idea about what dose to use recreationally,” said Schneir. “But of course heroin is Schedule 1 and it’s still a major problem.”