The dangers of opioids: What you need to know

shutterstock_133102730The abuse of opioids in the United States isn’t just a problem. As the Department of Health and Human Services states on its website, it’s an epidemic. And a new and highly lethal combination of opioids called “gray death” is the latest danger to emerge.

Opioids have been heavily scrutinized in the past several years. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, presented eye-opening statistics for the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control in May 2014. A few of the notable points from her testimony:

  • “It is estimated that between 26.4 million and 36 million people abuse opioids worldwide, with an estimated 2.1 million people in the United States suffering from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers in 2012, and an estimated 467,000 addicted to heroin. The consequences of this abuse have been devastating and are on the rise.”
  • “The number of prescriptions for opioids (like hydrocodone and oxycodone products) have escalated from around 76 million in 1991 to nearly 207 million in 2013, with the United States their biggest consumer globally, accounting for almost 100 percent of the world total for hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin) and 81 percent for oxycodone (e.g., Percocet).”
  • “… The estimated number of emergency department visits involving nonmedical use of opioid analgesics increased from 144,600 in 2004 to 305,900 in 2008. … Overdose deaths due to prescription opioid pain relievers have more than tripled in the past 20 years, escalating to 16,651 deaths in the United States in 2010.”

In 2015, opioids killed more than 33,000 people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And now comes the new threat. In a CBS News story, Deneen Kilcrease of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said, “Gray death is one of the scariest combinations that I have ever seen in nearly 20 years of forensic chemistry drug analysis.”

Here’s a closer look.

What gray death looks like: Gray death resembles concrete mix, according to CBS, and can appear as “a hard, chunky material to a fine powder.”

What it contains: Any number of harmful elements, including heroin, and the opioid fentanyl, which is often described as being 50 times more powerful than heroin. CBS reports that carfentanil, which is “sometimes used to tranquilize large animals, including elephants,” can be included, as can U-47700, a synthetic opioid that was in some of the pills found at Prince’s estate after his death in 2016. It’s also known as “Pink” or “U4.” NBC News reports that U-47700 “has been blamed for at least 46 deaths” since 2015 in New York, New Hampshire, Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin and North Carolina.

How it’s ingested: Multiple reports say that gray death can be swallowed, snorted, smoked and injected. It is even powerful enough to be harmful by someone simply touching it, and absorbing it through the skin.

Why it’s dangerous: Any of the aforementioned substances are highly dangerous. The combination — and because the specific ingredients are likely not to be known by the user — makes it an even greater risk. Russ Baer of the Drug Enforcement Agency tells NBC News, “No one should underestimate the deadly nature associated with these cocktails. You can buy one of these cocktails for $10 to $20 on the street and lose your life in a few seconds.”

Addicts in pursuit of more potent highs may be more likely to try the drug. CBS News quotes Jim Larkin, a detective in Lorain County, Ohio, who describes heroin addicts ignoring the dangers involved.

“It’s amazing to me that they find out one of their friends died from an overdose from the drug and they immediately try to find out where he got it from because they want to try it too,” he said. “Why anybody — ‘Hey, here’s some gray death,’ but what do you think is going to happen to you? Why do you think it’s called gray death?”

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