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Better dying through chemistry

February 3, 2014
Illustration by Tom Chalkley

Illustration by Tom Chalkley

The Medical Examiner’s office last Thursday released some alarming information, saying 37 Marylanders had been killed since September by overdoses of fentanyl, a synthetic opiate that has long been used as a heroin substitute. The Sun’s Andrea K. Walker reported that, according to the ME’s statistics, 12 percent of the state’s 318 overdose deaths since that time were attributable to fentanyl, and there were more elsewhere:

Heroin-fentanyl deaths have also been seen in the states of Washington, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and along the I-95 corridor, state health officials said.

The untimely death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was reportedly found on Sunday with a needle still stuck in his arm, suggests that we’ll be hearing more about fentanyl in the coming days and weeks.

First synthesized in the early 1970s and marketed as an anesthetic, fentanyl is 80 to 100 times stronger than heroin, and just as addictive. It also tends to suppress respiratory function a bit more, doesn’t give quite as much euphoria, and doesn’t last as long.

But with opium poppy production at an all time high, why would anyone bother with it?

Perhaps because with heroin, you’re dealing with a supply-chain that reaches around the world. You are depending on heavily-armed drug cartels, Taliban characters, and twitchy mules swallowing balloons—all lately under a bit more law enforcement pressure than usual.

Fentanyl is comparatively easy to make at home with materials you can acquire legally, according to several easily-Googlable web sites. Perhaps coincidentally, the Journal of the Chinese Chemical Society published a new synthesis last September.

Fentanyl also doesn’t ring the bell on drug tests.

Fentanyl problems are not a new thing though. Here’s Jack Shafer in an in-depth 1985 article in Science:

In 1981 alpha-methyl fentanyl, or China White, killed only one person. But the drug remained in plentiful supply, so the Drug Enforcement Administration went ahead with the scheduling process to classify the drug as a controlled substance. The DEA guessed that as soon as the drug became illegal the chemist would spin off another of the more than 200 known analogs of fentanyl to keep a legal heroin substitute in his inventory. From this list of analogs, DEA Special Testing synthesized 26 of the most likely. “The next one we saw wasn’t one of them,’ said Andrew Allen. In May 1981, a full four months before alpha-methyl fentanyl became a scheduled substance, the Los Angeles Police Department acted on a lead that a shipment of China White was being sent down from northern California. They seized a package that turned out to be para-fluoro fentanyl.

Shafer’s story predicted an explosion of designer drugs and overdoses from same, given that huge number of fentanyl analogues and that a few hundred dollars of raw material could yield millions of dollars worth. That didn’t really happen.

But some of the by-products were causing Parkinsons-like symptoms in some users. The first one was in Maryland.

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  • alex

    Good information, but a distasteful title. I understand the reference, but I think in this context, it’s pretty tacky.

  • alex

    Also, it says that the Journal of Chinese Chemical Society was actually published December 1980 (so like, 34 years ago), but published ONLINE first a few months ago. So not even a coincidence, just completely irrelevant information.