Carfentanil and the Danger of New Synthetic Opioids
As we continue to read and hear dire stories about the heroin epidemic, new and more dangerous opioids seem to be emerging at a rapid pace. Another narcotic that is now a part of this epidemic is called carfentanil. Though it is sold mixed into – or “cut” with – heroin and other drugs, carfentanil is so potent that even the smallest dose can cause an overdose and death.
What is carfentanil?
Carfentanil is a synthetic opioid, i.e., it is designed and produced in a laboratory, without the poppy plant. Its intended – and legal – purpose is to tranquilize large animals like horses and elephants. And because it is designed for large animals and not people, its potency is far greater than most other opioids: it is 10,000 times stronger than morphine, and up to 100 times more potent than fentanyl, a drug which itself is 50 times more powerful than heroin. Indeed, it is comparable to fentanyl; it is closely related on a chemical level and has similar effects. Sometimes it’s even included under the name “fentanyls.”
Carfentanil comes in several forms, including powder and tablets. It can be absorbed through the skin, inhaled accidentally in its powder form, or ingested. This makes carfentanil dangerous not only to those using the substance, but also to those who come into contact with it. With this in mind, carfentanil has never been approved for human use. It is even ill advised to eat the meat of an animal that has been tranquilized with it. A tiny dose of this drug – no larger than a grain of salt – can be fatal.
Why and how is carfentanil being used with heroin?
Like fentanyl, carfentanil has found its way into the illicit drug market. The drug has existed for quite some time – it was first synthesized in 1974 – though its use as an illicit narcotic began more recently, and not only in the U.S. Before carfentanil was a problem in America, it was misused in Lithuania and Estonia, two former Soviet states in the Baltic region. Recently, it has been found mixed with heroin in the U.S. – most likely illegally produced abroad and shipped here – making an already dangerous opioid all the more powerful.
Though many people in Lithuania and Estonia knowingly used carfentanil, drug dealers in the U.S. are mixing carfentanil into heroin and other drugs to make the drug cheaper, and increase sales. This is one of the primary problems with carfentanil: individuals using opioids are often unaware that the substance they’re buying is laced with it. The result can be an overdose. Yet unlike its cousin fentanyl, the effects of a carfentanil overdose are not as easily reversed with naloxone, the opioid blocker drug (also known as Narcan). Carfentanil is highly resistant to naloxone, and usually requires several shots for it to have an effect.
Yet carfentanil, and its dangers, are not as well-known as fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, having only emerged as a public health concern last summer when a string of overdoses, some fatal, occurred in several states across the country. Most notably, Ohio can be considered “ground zero” for the drug’s emergence in North America, according to The Washington Post. In one city in Ohio, 200 people overdosed on carfentanil over the course of two weeks, with three reported deaths. As a result of these overdoses, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) warned police and the public on how to protect themselves from this drug.
What can people do to protect themselves from carfentanil?
Although not a great deal is currently known about carfentanil’s effects on humans, there are still steps that families can take to protect themselves. Parents and teens should be educated on the available information on carfentanil. Some of this material is available in the warning that the DEA issued regarding symptoms of exposure and the different forms that the drug comes in.
It is also important for parents and teens to stay up-to-date on information and current news relating to other emerging drug trends. Staying informed facilitates an honest and open discussion between parents and teens, which can help prevent drug use and addiction.
Nkem Osian, MPH
Nkem is a Research Associate at Center on Addiction