The opioid epidemic continues unabated in the United States, with the rate of opioid overdose deaths having quadrupled since 1999, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It seems that each week, a new setback occurs in the fight against the opioid epidemic. The most recent crisis is the appearance of a mysterious new opioid compound that public health officials have called “grey death” for its lethal consequences.
What Is Grey Death?
Over the past few months, police conducting drug seizures began noticing a peculiar new drug in addition to the heroin, prescription painkillers, fentanyl, and other opioids that have become commonplace as the opioid crisis has swept across the United States. Called “grey death,” the drug has been linked to several overdose deaths, most of which have been concentrated in the South. Georgia is a hotspot for the drug, with police in the state reportedly seizing more than 50 batches of grey death over the past several months. The majority of these seizures have occurred in metro Atlanta, which has been ravaged by the opioid crisis. More recently, police in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Alabama have confirmed the presence of grey death in those states as well.
There is no easy answer to the question of what grey death is. Authorities have been perplexed by the presence of the drug, and toxicology studies are still underway. Samples taken from different drug seizures have yielded a different cocktail of opioids, all with the same characteristic grey appearance. Grey death may include heroin, fentanyl, the designer drug U-47700 (sometimes called “pink”), the elephant tranquilizer carfentanyl, and other compounds resembling fentanyl. Each of these drugs is present in relatively low concentrations. However, fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than morphine, and other drugs may be even stronger than fentanyl. As a result, even tiny amounts of these compounds can be lethal.
What Makes Grey Death So Deadly?
Grey death varies in consistency from batch to batch. In general, it looks like a concrete mixture with a pale grey appearance. However, even the grey color has caused consternation among drug experts. According to a forensic chemist at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, it is unclear what makes grey death grey, as “nothing in and of itself should be that color.” What authorities do know is that the drug is extraordinarily dangerous and may lead to a spike in opioid overdose deaths.
Users of grey death can swallow, smoke, inject, or snort the drug. Each route of administration varies in how immediately the drug takes effect. However, the effects are similar: feelings of euphoria, numbing, lowered heart rate, slowed respiration, and constipation. Because of the high addictive potential of the components of grey death, individuals suffering from opioid dependence may try the drug to satisfy their intense drug cravings.
Unfortunately, grey death is much more dangerous than drugs like heroin or prescription painkillers used alone. For instance, the tranquilizer carfentanyl, which has been found in gray death, is 100 times more potent than fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine. A single flake of the drug can tranquilize an elephant, meaning that even breathing in the substance or touching it could be deadly to humans. Furthermore, many of the drugs in grey death originate overseas in Chinese laboratories, where purity of the compounds is poorly controlled. This means that a person purchasing grey death on the streets has no idea what drugs may be in the compound. Furthermore, the potency can vary wildly from one batch to the next.
How to Combat the Rise of Drugs like Grey Death
One of the biggest barriers to counteracting grey death and other opioids is that individuals on the street often have no idea what they are buying. Heroin is often laced with more potent opioids without individuals’ knowledge. Furthermore, overseas drug manufacturers continue to tweak the chemical formula of fentanyl to make similar compounds that are not regulated by the FDA.
To counteract the rise of grey death, we need a strong public response emphasizing the dangers of this drug. Increasing access to naloxone, an overdose-reversing medication, is vital to saving the lives of people experience an overdose from gray death. We also need to take a compassionate approach to drug treatment, helping those struggling with opioid dependence to get the care they need.