UPDATE: The DEA announced Thursday that they have added U-47700 to the list of Schedule I drugs, set to go into effect on November 14th, 2016. As an emergency scheduling, it will stay on the list for 24 months – with a possible 12-month extension – while they determine if the drug should remain there permanently.
A research chemical known as U-47700 has recently dominated headlines as a dozen states (including Ohio, Florida, Georgia and Oregon) moved to ban the newly popular drug, and the Drug Enforcement Administration announced plans to assign it Schedule I status. Sometimes referred to simply as U4, the super-strong synthetic opioid has been cited as the cause of dozens of deaths across the U.S. in the last several months – including, most notably, the overdose death of Prince, caused by a "cocktail" that included Fentanyl and U-47700.
Many of the news reports on U-47700 have referred to the drug by the alleged street name of "Pinky" or "Pink," but in online forums, drug users claim the name was invented by law enforcement and that no one actually calls it that. Because U4 is still technically legal, it can be purchased online from any number of research chemical warehouses that trade in drugs created in labs. But as the DEA announced last month, U-47700 will soon be placed into the agency's most restricted category due to "an imminent hazard to the public safety." Here, everything you need to know about the deadly drug making waves across the country.
Where did it come from?
U-47700 was created in a lab by 20th-century pharmaceutical giant Upjohn. In 1976, chemist Jacob Szmuszkovicz patented the drug after a round of animal testing, noting that the new opioid blend was more potent that morphine but with supposedly less addictive potential. The drug was intended to treat severe pain associated with cancer, surgery, or injury, but was never tested on humans and ended up being relegated to research. Szmuszkovicz's patent, though, remained publicly available with detailed instructions on how to produce U4 – leading drug labs in China and elsewhere to whip up and sell batches of the sought-after opioid.
A July 2016 toxicology report from the Annals of Emergency Medicine cited a case in which Fentanyl and U-47700 were combined and being sold on the street in place of the prescription drug Norco. Similar reports showed that U4 and Fentanyl are often used in combination, whether or not the user is aware of the research chemical's presence in their drug cocktail.
Why is it so popular?
Like other opioids such as oxycodone or heroin, U4 is said to cause a feeling of euphoric relaxation. The analgesic sedates users while also causing severe respiratory depression. One user who wished to remain anonymous told Rolling Stone via email that the drug induced "non-overbearing rushes of comfort, warmth, and laziness" that made him want to "lay in a cozy spot and watch a movie."
In general, research chemicals are popular because many are legal: they either manage to fly under the radar of law enforcement and DEA scheduling, or manufacturers are able to constantly adjust the chemical makeup to avoid matching the scheduled substance. They're also cheap: a scan of websites offering U4 for sale showed prices starting at around $30 a gram. Many RC's like U-47700 are made in China, which both keeps costs low and poses a risk to users who can never be quite sure of product's consistency.
What makes it so deadly?
U-47700 is said to be about seven and a half times the strength of morphine – and that's only if it's manufactured to the exact specifications of the patent. With underground labs in China producing the stuff to ship around the world, variations in the chemical makeup can be deadly.
At least 80 deaths have been cited as U-47700 overdoses in the past nine months, leading to the drug being banned in a dozen states. In one Utah case, two 13-year-old children died after reportedly using the drug. The fact that U4 can be purchased online makes it easily accessible to kids – but some RC websites have already stopped shipping to the U.S. as a result of changing laws.
Death isn't the only risk to a U4 user. On Reddit, users shared horror stories about unforeseen side effects such as rectal bleeding after "plugging" (inserting the drug anally) and severe nerve damage in areas affected by intravenous use – even after six months of being clean and sober.
What's next for U-47700?
Law enforcement and emergency response teams are racing to catch up with U4. The DEA's scheduling hasn't gone through yet, but state after state has banned the drug in response to local deaths. It's hard to track just how many overdoses have come as a result of U-47700, though. As Salt Lake City Poison Control representative Amber Johnson told local station Fox13 after the two 13-year-old Utah boys died, it has been tough to track the amount of calls coming in about U4: "the drug is so new we don't even have a code for it yet."
Forensic labs are only just starting to catch up to U-47700, too. In a September 14th press release from NMS Labs, Chief of Forensic Toxicology Barry Logan said that both U4 and Fentanyl – both drugs found in the cocktail that killed Prince – are "frequently a blind spot for many forensic labs, because they are novel and the labs are not looking for them in their routine procedures." But those labs are starting to catch up now, and online retailers are curbing sales in anticipation of the upcoming DEA ban.