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The compound is reportedly ingestible through contact with the skin, meaning it poses a risk not just to drug users, but to law enforcement and medical personnel as well.
“Gray death” is just as dangerous as its name suggests.
Over the course of a 72 hour period—from Saturday to Monday—11 people died from overdoses linked to the street drug combination in and around Erie County, New York, which includes Buffalo.
The drug, which gets its name in part because of its resemblance to powdered concrete, is made from a variety of combinations of heroin, fentanyl—a powerful synthetic opioid—and something called U-47700.
U-47700, a designer drug, was legal up until the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration added it to the list of Schedule I drugs—the category reserved for the most dangerous and addictive substances—in November 2016. The opioid was developed with the treatment of cancer pain in mind, but was never tested on humans and has been used instead, in official capacities, as a research substance. Pills containing U-47700 were found on the property of the musician Prince following his fatal overdose.
“Gray death” has now been tied to overdose fatalities in Alabama, Georgia and Ohio, and local authorities are still learning just how lethal this mixture can be.
"Gray death is one of the scariest combinations that I have ever seen in nearly 20 years of forensic chemistry drug analysis," Deneen Kilcrease, the manager of the chemistry section at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, told the Associated Press.
"These chemicals are all very potent and very deadly in isolation, but in the wrong hands ... that's a fast-track route to the morgue," Donna Iula, the director of forensic chemistry at Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Cayman Chemical, a company that works with federal, state and local crime labs to identify unknown street drugs, told CNN.
The compound is reportedly ingestible through contact with the skin, meaning it poses a risk not just to drug users, but to law enforcement and medical personnel as well. “Gray death” is being blamed for the near-fatal overdose of Chris Green, a police officer in East Liverpool, Ohio, last Friday who came into contact with the drug during a traffic stop. Green was revived only after several doses of Narcan.
In the face of this danger, law enforcement agencies across the country are changing their practices to ensure the safety of their workforce. In an interview on National Public Radio’s “Here & Now” program, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine described the way these drugs have impacted drug-testing operations in his state.
“In our crime labs that the state runs, we have fundamentally changed how we handle the drugs that are coming in,” DeWine said. “We’re much more cautious than we’ve ever been in the past.”
Part of those extra precautions, DeWine said, include the complete elimination of field tests for drugs found at crime scenes.
Quinn Libson is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.