Column: Suffolk leads charge against a dangerous drug

COURTESY PHOTO Legislator Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills)
COURTESY PHOTO Legislator Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills)

We all know about the horrors of heroin and the addictive pain-killing drug oxycodone, but what do we know about U-47700?

The Suffolk County Legislature recently passed a measure describing the drug U-47700 as “eight times more potent than morphine,” linking it to 50 deaths in the U.S. since December of last year. The new bill prohibits “the sale, possession with the intent to sell and distribution of U-47700 and similar chemicals” in Suffolk. It was passed unanimously by the legislature on October 5 and has gone to County Executive Steve Bellone for his consideration.

The author of the bill is Legislator Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills). “The county of Suffolk is in the midst of an opiate addiction crisis.”

Mr. Stern’s bill bluntly declares. He notes that U-47700 was developed as an alternative to morphine but was never marketed after it was determined it was eight times more potent.

Nevertheless, the composition of U-47700 and other synthetic opioids, and ways of making them, have become available from information in their patents and articles about them in scientific journals. They are currently being produced overseas, with China named as a major source of U-47700.

When I Googled “U-47700 sale” last week, numerous websites came up — the first boasting: “Buy highest quality U-47700 for sale online.” The seller is an entity that describes itself as “one of the biggest chemical suppliers in China.”

U-47700 is highly addictive and was linked to the death of the performer Prince in April; U-47700 was found in his body along with another opioid, fentanyl.

U-47700 is “particularly lethal,” says Mr. Stern, because it is “resistant” to treatment with Narcan, instantaneous therapy used to revive drug users who overdose.

It can be smoked, snorted or taken orally and can cause respiratory depression, coma, permanent brain damage and death. Banned in several states, among them Georgia, Ohio, Kansas and Wyoming, it is also prohibited in Sweden.

“We must do everything in our power to protect our young people from synthetic opioids like U-47700 that we know lead to addiction, serious health effects, graduation to heroin and potential death,” said Mr. Stern after the passage of his measure.

The U in U-47700 is for Upjohn, the pharmaceutical manufacturer that developed it. Upjohn was “searching for a novel painkilling drug, the holy grail of analgesics,” says Dr. Barry K. Logan, executive director of the Center for Forensic Scientific Research & Education.

Two decades ago, Upjohn merged with Pharmcia, which subsequently merged with Monsanto. Monsanto was purchased last month by Bayer, a German company, in a $66 billion deal. The combined company would be a corporate global giant dominating pesticides, seeds and pharmaceuticals.

For little Suffolk County (relatively) with its population of 1.5 million, to take on U-47700 considering it has become a worldwide menace, is not a new stance for the county.

In 2003, for example, Suffolk instituted the first ban in the United States of ephedra, a dietary supplement linked to deaths in the U.S. Then Democratic Suffolk Legislator John Cooper of Lloyd Harbor took on ephedra after a 20-year-old man in his legislative district died from the substance.

It was not easy governmental sledding, with Ephedra having many promoters. Mr. Cooper said at the time as then County Executive Robert Gaffney signed the measure into law: “The industry lobbyists don’t want people to know this but the simple fact is that ephedra kills. With the signing of law of Suffolk County’s landmark ban, the handwriting is on the wall. The days of ephedra are numbered.”

And they were. The next year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which through the years has often failed, along with other U.S. regulatory agencies, to move against many poisons, followed Suffolk and banned ephedra nationally. (One of the books I have written focuses on this governmental failure through the years.) The New York Times described the action by the Suffolk Legislature against ephedra as “upholding its reputation for trendsetting.”

U-47700 is a more complex issue since it’s one of many synthetic opioid drugs that have been concocted and coming into the United States and elsewhere around the world. But Suffolk has begun doing its part.

As with ephedra, Suffolk’s legislation to ban U-47700 “and similar chemicals” must be adopted and implemented widely.