How Synthetic Drugs Like U-47700 Hit The Market

Esther Honig, WOSU News
05/13/2016
Lane Wallace
Lane Wallace

Professor Lane Wallace at OSU’S College of Pharmacy admits he doesn’t watch a lot of TV. 

“I have not seen Breaking Bad, but from what I hear this is probably reasonably close,”said Wallace.  

He’s talking about the individual, or organized group, that was able to manufacture the drug U-47700, a synthetic drug that Governor Kasich outlawed last week after it caused a fatal overdose in northeastern Ohio. 

Like the TV character Walter White, a chemistry teacher who broke bad to make methamphetamine, these distributors likely have a science background. Wallace says, cooking up synthetic opiates is well beyond your typical kitchen lab.

"Some kind of organization that has some equipment, that has some knowledge and some pretty good expertise.”

U-47700 is reportedly 7.5 times more powerful than morphine, but Wallace says that doesn't make it especially dangerous. Other synthetic drugs like flaka or Spice are more deadly. What all these drugs have in common is where they came from—Pharmaceutical companies.

Drug companies are always trying to make chemicals that will have better drug properties than the ones already on the market. U-47700 was developed in the 70s by a drug company looking to produce a painkiller that worked like an opiate, but without the ugly side effects like addiction. The drug was tested on animals, deemed unsuccessful and never produced, but the research on U-47700 was published and it ended up online.

Wallace enters "U-47700" into a Google. From a Wikipedia page he pulls up the original article in an academic journal that gives step-by-step instructions on how to create the drug. Wallace says you can find hundreds of publications just like this online, and because of a loophole in the law, producing and selling many of them isn't illegal.

“So the law identifies drugs by names that are regulated and are illegal. Drugs are put into that category for their adverse effects on humans.”

Remember, though, U-47700 was never tested on humans, therefore research drugs like this are not listed in the laws. Technically they are not illegal. That is of course until Governor Kasich outlawed them.

Melvin Patterson is a special agent with the DEA. He says keeping up with these unregulated drugs is a challenge. 

“Trying to be ahead of the game and find out as soon as we can what’s the next thing people are going to start to gravitate towards," said Patterson.

To keep tabs on new homemade drugs, the DEA relies on special intelligence, but Patterson says they often figure it out only after a drug has caused problems.

"The results of testing on drug overdoses, whether they’re fatal or not we partner with the medical community to find out what type of substances they’re seeing," said Patterson.

That’s how U-47700 was discovered, in a crime lab after a 29-year-old-man in Northeastern Ohio overdosed and died.