Last April, a couple lost their 25-year-old son to an experimental substance that was never supposed to see the light of day. Ray and Christine Henney found their son R.J. slumped over his desk, facedown on his laptop. The shocked and devastated parents were told that their son died of a drug was so far in the past that it never even got a proper name: U-47700. The synthetic opioid is a relic of the 1970s when researchers abandoned it rather than trying to push it to market. The young man’s death sheds a tragic and alarming light on an environment that allows these synthetic substances to flourish, even if only for a short while.
We are now in the midst of an era in which the ability to regulate synthetic drugs is far outpaced by producers’ ability to manufacture and traffic them. The legal gray area that makes it hard for lawmakers to take legislative action against these substances until well after they’ve hit American shores, often killing dozens of people before they’re finally banned, is one of the most urgent drug-trafficking issues of the modern era. U-47700 is just one example of this. A drug for which there was no law at the time of R.J.’s death, it took five months for the DEA to take action toward banning it; there were simply no regulations against some of the compounds contained within the drug.
Labs from overseas continue to create these drugs and ship them overseas while engaging in an ongoing game of legal cat-and-mouse with authorities. It’s no sooner that regulators ban one drug that foreign manufacturers come up with another nearly identical substance, the chemical composition of which is changed just enough to escape legal prohibition. In addition to creating a whole new addiction threat each time another emerges, the continued and unfiltered throw of these drugs further exacerbates the difficulty America is experiencing fighting established threats like the rapid expansion of opioids and heroin.
Recently, however, more and more action is being take to combat synthetic marijuana, synthetic opioids and other similar drugs from spreading any further. The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs estimates that “new psychoactive substances”—a broad list that includes synthetic opioids—are emerging globally at an average rate of one a week. As with U-47700, rogue chemists sometimes piggyback on research by legitimate scientists that was abandoned before making it to the legal market. For now, however, the easy chemistry and delayed regulation make these drugs increasingly dangerous.