Synthetic Painkillers Bought On The Dark Web Open ‘A New Chapter’ In Drug Crisis

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter
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Synthetic opioids are increasingly flowing into the U.S. through the Dark Web, complicating the jobs of investigators attempting to trace narcotics back to the source.

Authorities in Oregon recently tracked the source of a potent synthetic opioid linked to the fatal overdose of an 18-year-old girl Feb 16 to a man in South Carolina. Theodore Khleborod, who went by the name Peter the Great, used the Dark Web to ship hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of U-47700 throughout the country to anonymous buyers packaged in a pregnancy test purchased at Dollar Tree stores. U-47700, or simply U-4, is listed as one of the most dangerous substances regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration, reports Willamette Week.

It took Portland narcotics detectives nearly three months to navigate the world of encrypted profiles and emails on the Dark Web to ultimately bust Khleborod for supply the drugs that killed 18-year-old Aisha Zughbieh-Collins. Authorities say cases like these are becoming more common across the country as the rate of synthetic opioid deaths overtakes those of heroin and prescription painkillers.

“I told Aisha U-4 was suicide,” Jessica Collins, Aisha’s mother, told Willamette Week. “You can’t choose whether you live or die. It’s like Russian roulette. I worry about how many other families this might happen to.”

Synthetic opioid deaths spiked by 72.2 percent between 2014 and 2015, compared to a 20.6 percent spike in heroin deaths and a 2.6 percent increase in prescription painkiller deaths over the same period. While synthetic opioids are still a relatively benign problem in Oregon, they are blamed as one of the primary drivers of the opioid epidemic nationally.

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.

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.

“The synthetic thing is new to everybody,” Dr. Paul Lewis, a health officer in Multnomah County, OR, told Willamette Week. “We thought heroin was the foe, but now these synthetics come along. It’s a new chapter, and we don’t know how it ends.”

A recent investigation by 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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