Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi signed an emergency order outlawing U-47700, a synthetic drug with a high potential for abuse and high risk of life-threatening side effects.
U-47700 is a man-made opioid that is similar in chemical structure to drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone, but it has about eight times the potency of morphine. It has been linked to at least 50 deaths across the country, according an Associated Press report.
“Synthetic drugs are ruining lives and destroying families and we must do everything in our power to protect Floridians from these dangerous substances,” Bondi said at a press conference. “That is why today I have emergency scheduled U-47700 and will continue to work with law enforcement to identify and outlaw harmful synthetic drugs as they appear.”
U-47700 has been linked to five deaths in Pinellas County and three in Bay County in 2016.
The drug can come in powder, pill or liquid form, and it has been administered in the form of a nasal spray. Authorities say it’s being manufactured in Asia and can be purchased online. It’s often combined with other drugs, such as heroin, cocaine or Xanax.
“They’re cutting it with this junk,” Bondi said. “It’s trash, and it’s killing our kids.”
Because U-47700 is a Schedule I drug, individuals who possess it can be charged with a third-degree felony and be subjected to five years in jail. Florida is the fourth state to outlaw U-47700. Other states include Wyoming, Ohio and Georgia.
Kansas was considering outlawing it in June, but the state’s process for scheduling drugs is lengthy. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration spokesperson Barbara Carreno told the AP that U-47700 is on the DEA’s radar, but it hasn’t decided what action to take yet.
It’s difficult for law enforcement to keep up with synthetic drugs that make it to the street because there are so many chemical variations available to criminal chemists. DEA labs have identified between 300 and 400 chemicals, but it’s only scheduled about 20.
“Chemical companies are making new ones to replace them,” Carreno told the AP. “Somebody pulled this one off a shelf.”
Florida authorities wasted little time once the drug was identified in the state.
“Anyone attempting to mix and distribute this with other drugs, we are coming after you,” Bondi said. “We are going to save lives.”
At a September summit in Boca Raton, law enforcement officials said someone dies of a drug overdose every two hours in South Florida.
The U.S. Attorney for South Florida Wilfredo Ferrer told reporters that more than 1,400 deaths in 2015 were traced to opioid overdoses in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
“It’s the most urgent public health challenge we face,” Ferrer said, per the AP. “This addiction has no boundaries. It’s everywhere. Anyone can be a victim.”
In Miami-Dade County, 541 deaths were linked to prescription drugs in 2015, a 39.1 percent increase from the year before. A total of 292 people died prescription drug-related deaths in Broward County last year, a 14.1 percent increase from 2014, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.
At the summit, Delray Beach Police Chief Jeff Goldman said his city had already experienced 394 drug overdoses, up from 195 in 2015, according to the AP.
South Florida DEA Special Agent John McKenna said the drug overdoses are increasing because dealers are lacing heroin with cheaper drugs that can be bought online. Fentanyl is one example. A kilogram of the extremely potent drug costs $2,000 online. A kilo of heroin costs about $60,000 on the street.
“The bottom line, it’s all about the money,” McKenna said. “[Dealers] don’t care about anybody out on the streets.”
The overdose reversal drug naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, is a key tool in preventing opioid-related deaths. Naloxone can reverse the effects of a fatal dose of heroin in minutes. Overdoses caused by more potent drugs such as fentanyl often require two to three doses of naloxone.
Naloxone has been dispersed to first responders across the country, and Florida law enforcement agencies have reported promising results.
In an effort to make the drug available to consumers, several pharmacies and states expanded access to naloxone. In many states, the drug is now available without a prescription. Florida joined that list in July.
“By establishing a physician-authorized standing order that allows our pharmacies to dispense naloxone to patients without an individual prescription, we strengthen our commitment to helping the communities we serve begin to address the challenges of prescription drug abuse,” CVS Vice President of Pharmacy Professional Practices Tom Davis said in a press release.
Narcan became available at select CVS pharmacies in Florida in September, and stores will eventually sell both Narcan and generic naloxone. A two-dose package of Narcan was available for $126.45 in West Palm Beach, according to the Palm Beach Post.
The move gives one more resource to communities trying to keep the effects of the opioid epidemic from devastating their neighborhoods.