Prescription opioids — painkillers like oxycodone, hydrocodone and the old standby morphine — kill more Americans than any other drug. In 2014, the official death toll was 18,893, which is probably an undercount but is nonetheless more than three times the number of Americans (5,415) who fatally overdosed on cocaine and more than twice the number of deaths (7,945) caused by benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax.
Moreover, opioid deaths have exploded over the past two decades, growing by more than fourfold between 1999 and 2014, as this chart from the National Institute on Drug Abuse neatly sums up.
But prescription drugs are only part of the opioid problem in the United States. Heroin use has also skyrocketed over the past decade and a half and research suggests that the trend lines are intertwined, with addicts turning from the pharmacy to the street when the former becomes unavailable or proves inadequate. And then there are so-called "research chemicals," neither widely prescribed pharmaceuticals like Vicodin nor black-market staples like heroin that can easily be purchased on the Internet.
U-447700 is one of the latter. On Wednesday morning, Parkland Hospital sent out an alert about the drug.
“We’ve had calls recently from people concerned about this new drug,” North Texas Poison Center toxicologist Kristina Domanski said. “In one situation, four young adults used U-47700 at a party and while two of the people were fine, two others had to be hospitalized. One of them ended up in an ICU with respiratory depression.”
U-47700 isn't, in fact, new. According to both the the Parkland alert and Wikipedia, the compound was patented in the 1970s by the Michigan-based pharmaceutical company Upjohn. It has been relegated to lab shelves pretty much ever since.
But the chemical was probably too tantalizing to languish in obscurity in the Internet age. Perhaps because research showed that the substance was 7.5 times as potent as morphine in animal models (again this comes from both Parkland's news alert and U-47700's Wikipedia entry), and because there are entire communities of people online who devote themselves to finding new and interesting chemicals to ingest, U-47700 was recently rediscovered as a recreational drug.
The Internet is now littered with first-hand accounts of U-47700 highs. The route of administration varies by user. The ones taken to Parkland snorted it in powder form. On the drug message board Bluelight, there are reports of oral, intravenous and rectal administration. Reddit user ElectronicExorcist, who reports purchasing a liquid version of the compound from a Swedish supplier using Bitcoin, offers a typical account:
I did a quick allergy test with the smallest drop I could get on my tongue. It was minty (they added menthol to the mix), and it numbed my tongue a little, but I got no real response after an hour.
Then things got real:
T: 0:00 - I tried a single squirt into one nostril (3mg).
T: 0:15 - I could feel a light relaxation and calmness. No rush. Just a nice relaxed chill
T: 0:30 - I tried another squirt. (now up to 6mg)
T: 0:40 - Now I'm getting a rush. It is euphoric and happy, and my back pains are all gone.
T: 1:00 - Squirt number 3 (total of 9mg)
T: 1:10 - serious rush now. I am not quite nodding, but I feel really good. My motor coordination is slightly impaired (I walked into a door before I managed to get it open)
T: 1:30 - I like this. I like it a lot. Hung out, watching TV, listening to music, having a good time in general.
T: 2:00 - I feel no pain. The world is a happy place once again. It is a bit moreish, and I kinda want another squirt. But I hold myself back, since it is just my first time using this substance, and I don't want to die.
T: 4:00 - the peak has passed, and I am coming down. I still feel great, and I'm laying down watching TV and will be asleep soon.
T: 5:00. I am sleeping.
I woke up the next morning with no hangover, w/d, or anything. I felt great and went to work with no problems. I am looking forward to further research.
Scroll through the message boards and one finds darker accounts. Early commentary on Bluelight hypothesized that, given the chemical makeup and the short duration of the high, U-47700 posed a significant risk of overdose. Many of the accounts mention symptoms of respiratory depression, in which breathing becomes too slow to get enough oxygen and expel enough carbon dioxide.
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He died of an accidental overdose on Jan 8. He was still sitting in his chair, so I hope with all my heart that he died quickly, painlessly and without fear. He was our only child. ... It's sad and we loved him ... I know he did not want to die. We are even mad at him because we have read some caution expressed in some of these posts, and yet he is gone forever... so we don't have answers, but these chemicals are far too dangerous. Live to be old, not just 22.
Deaths have also been reported in Europe, and U-47700 is now illegal in both Sweden and Finland. It remains unregulated elsewhere, however, and is still easy to find online. The reputable-seeming Benzochemicals.com, for example, markets a plastic baggie full of the powder for $40 a gram.
It probably goes without saying that one should be wary of ingesting drugs purchased blind off sketchy websites. But just in case, Domanski, the Parkland toxicologist, offers a reminder: “You never really know what you are buying when you purchase something online, especially from an overseas vendor. People should use extreme caution.”