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Crime Labs Having Trouble Keeping Up With The Amount Of New Drugs

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter
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The influx of synthetic opioids are driving up overdose deaths across the U.S. and crime labs are struggling to keep up, saying new forms of the drugs appear on nearly a weekly basis.

State officials are having a difficult time dealing with the constant shifts in the illicit opioid market. Authorities are grappling with everything from heroin cut with elephant tranquilizers to knock-off pills containing chemicals more powerful than morphine. Fentanyl, a painkiller roughly 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin, is the most common chemical added to pills and heroin batches, but even more deadly synthetic replications are appearing in increasing numbers on the street, reports STAT.

The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) identified fake yellow pills branded as Percocet in early June that sparked several deaths and dozens of overdoses. After rigorous testing, scientists found a little known synthetic opioid called cyclopropyl in the pills.

The influx of a wide array of synthetic painkillers are complicating state responses to the epidemic. State and federal data reporting on overdose deaths are lagging behind the rapid shifts in the drug market.

“What happens when fentanyl changes on a weekly or monthly basis,” Dr. Daniel Ciccarone, professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told STAT. “You need 2017 data in a 2017 crisis response.”

The most recent federal data on opioid overdoses is from 2015, and final statistics for 2016 are not expected until December. Critics say the slow process is leaving first responders and treatment providers in the dark about the true nature of the drug crisis. Authorities in several state have recently said some potent heroin batches cut with fentanyl analogs, or synthetic replications of fentanyl, are proving resistant to the overdose reversal drug Narcan.

Workers at New Jersey’s Office of Forensic Sciences have identified cases of carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer and fentanyl analog roughly 10,000 stronger than morphine.

Other potent analogs including acrylfentanyl and tetrahydro fentanyl have also been identified in crime labs in Georgia, Illinois and New Jersey.

“We often don’t have a clear picture of how big the opioid problem is until months have passed,” Brian Smith, a public health advocate, told STAT. “That’s so fundamentally different as to how we treat any other epidemic; if we’re going call this an opioid epidemic, we should treat it as one.”

A majority of opioid-related deaths in the U.S. involved prescription pills in 2015, though many are counterfeit versions of a brand pill obtained on the street. Many addicts start with a prescription for painkillers, but when their supply is cut off they look for pills and heroin in the black market.

STAT predicts the annual death toll from opioids will rise by roughly 35 percent between 2015 and 2027. Their analysis predicts up to 500,000 people could die from opioids over the next decade. The experts agree, even in a best-case scenario, the crisis will not visibly start to subside until after 2020.

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