A mixture of heroin, potent painkillers and elephant tranquilizers are being cut together to create “gray death,” a lethal combination of opioids sweeping through states plagued by addiction.
Investigators are finding samples of the fatal blend in Alabama, Georgia and Ohio, and the cocktail is described as looking like a concrete mix with varying consistencies. Officials in Georgia said they’ve had 50 overdose cases involving gray death over the past three months centered around Atlanta. While coroners in Ohio report a steady increase in gray death overdose cases since the year began, the Associated Press reported Thursday.
Gray death combinations will vary, but include heroin, fentanyl, carfentanil and a synthetic opioid called U-47700. Fentanyl is an opiate-based painkiller roughly 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Carfentanil is roughly 10,000 times stronger than morphine and used for tranquilizing elephants. U-47700 is less common, but listed as one of the most dangerous substances regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“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 Associated Press.
Officials warn that users often do not know what they are buying when they are sold the mixture. Authorities also note powders like carfentanil can be absorbed through the skin, posing deadly risks to anyone in the presence of the substance.
The presence of substances like gray death are causing a problem for police conducting drug raids. In the chaos of a major drug bust, the powder can go airborne, poisoning officers exposed. Police are now cautioned to avoid field-testing due to the risk of exposure to carfentanil or fentanyl.
Fatal overdoses from heroin quadrupled over the last five years nationally, according to data released by the National Center for Health Statistics Feb. 24. They say the massive increase in heroin and general opioid abuse in the U.S. since 2010 is driven by lower drug prices and ingredients with higher potency, like fentanyl.
The problem posed by fatal drug mixtures is not exclusive to heroin. Fentanyl is being found cut into cocaine supplies in a number of states including Rhode Island. The development is alarming for law enforcement in the region, who note that unlike heroin, cocaine is more widely used as a social drug.
They fear users are largely unaware of fentanyl being cut up with cocaine and say it will have deadly consequences. Less than half a teaspoon of pure fentanyl is enough to kill 10 people.
“You don’t know what you’re getting with these things,” Richie Webber, head of the organization Fight for Recovery, told The Associated Press. “Every time you shoot up you’re literally playing Russian roulette with your life.”
In 2010 only 8 percent of all fatal drug overdoses stemmed from heroin. That figure climbed to 25 percent by 2015.
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