A unique form of fentanyl called furanyl fentanyl has resurfaced in New York City. Throughout 2016, rogue Chinese labs produced fentanyl derivatives, such as furanyl fentanyl, to evade legal regulations.
The chemical was technically legal to sell in the United States until the Drug Enforcement Administration classified it as a Schedule I controlled substance in September 2016. Fentanyl is a potent opioid that’s caused increasing numbers of overdose deaths across the country.
Between December 2015 and April 2016, seven deaths in Cook County, Illinois involved furanyl fentanyl. The drug was also suspected of causing a number of overdoses in Chicago in February 2017, according to the Chicago Tribune.
In March, New York City police arrested more than 30 gang members who were accused of trafficking China White from Arizona to New York. Police confiscated fentanyl, furanyl fentanyl and cocaine during the arrests.
“This may be the biggest public health crisis of our time,” Acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said at a March 29 news conference. “These defendants don’t care about the death and despair they’re causing, just making money.”
Two days after the press conference, seven people died from heroin overdoses on the same day in Erie County, New York. Authorities believed the heroin was laced with fentanyl, but it’s unclear what form of fentanyl was involved.
In early April, nine people in New York City overdosed during a 24-hour time period, according to the New York Daily News. Authorities across the state are scrambling to keep illicit opioids off the street and to connect people who need help with treatment.
At an April law enforcement conference, the New York City Police Department announced that it was focusing more attention on drug dealers and less on people who use drugs.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said at the conference. “When we interview those who have been lucky enough not to die after an overdose, we tell them we are not going to lock them up. We want to know how and when they got their drugs.”
NYPD is also expanding efforts to save the lives of opioid users. New York City Police Chief Dermot Shea announced that 17,000 police officers have been trained to use Narcan, a nasal spray that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. Every NYPD police officer is expected to receive naloxone training by June.
The police department is also tracking overdoses with a system called RxStat. The system identifies hot spots where a large number of overdoses have occurred. RxStat can help officers raise awareness about a dangerous supply of heroin in specific neighborhoods. It can also help them track down drug dealers.
In the 1970s, “China White” referred to almost any form of heroin. Today, it’s usually used to refer to furanyl fentanyl, but some people use it to refer to heroin laced with other forms of fentanyl.
Many drug dealers sell heroin mixed with other chemicals as China White to increase its appeal. Like other drugs, users rarely know if they’re buying China White that includes furanyl fentanyl or some other combination of chemicals.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) described New York City as the “East Coast hub” for China White distribution in 2015. At the time, he called for increased funding for anti-drug trafficking programs.
“We all saw the horrors caused by the crack epidemic when left unchecked by feds and other law enforcement,” Schumer said in a 2015 statement. “[We] can’t let New York City become [a] hotbed for heroin and even more dangerous forms like ‘China White.’”
China White contributed to 23 people deadly fentanyl overdoses during a two-week period in upstate New York in 2016.
The availability of fentanyl derivatives in the United States was expected to decrease after China cracked down on fentanyl production in February 2017, but authorities said that the drug trafficking ring that was busted in April received most of its fentanyl from China.