Two overdose deaths in South Carolina have led state regulators to ban a relatively new type of synthetic opioid known as “pink.”
The state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) board last week followed staff recommendations and voted to add the compound U-47700 to its Schedule I list of controlled substances. The move came just four days before the federal Drug Enforcement Agency indicated it would do the same nationwide.
DHEC’s Midlands/Piedmont Director for the Bureau of Drug Control Anne Marie Ravenna said “pink” was developed in the 1970s as a morphine alternative, but was never approved for human use. However, it has recently found new life as a heroin-type drug, developed in labs and sold over the Internet.
“Substances in Schedule I are those that have high potential for abuse, no current medical use in treatment in the United States and the lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision,” she told board members. “Available data for ‘pink’ indicates this synthetic opioid meets all of those requirements.”
Board members banned the drug under a 2013 law that gives DHEC the power to add substances to the list whenever the state legislature is not in session, so long as it notifies the public and holds required hearings. DHEC took the step after the DEA announced it September it would ban the drug nationally, but had not taken the steps two months later. DEA announced Monday it had added the drug to the federal Schedule One list.
Capt. Wendy Bell of the State Law Enforcement Division’s forensics services laboratory said two deaths have been attributed to the drug in South Carolina within the past year: a 28-year-old Spartanburg mother and a 16-year-old boy from Lancaster County. The drug is more potent than heroin, but not as common as the fentanyl-laced version that public health officials say is worsening an epidemic of opioid-related overdoses in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions of the U.S.
“This is our latest new challenge,” Bell told the board. “We’re seeing this in a lot of youth seizures and emergency room visits that are occurring throughout the state.”
Spartanburg County’s Chief Forensic Chemist Melissa Hendricks said the Spartanburg woman’s boyfriend had bought the fatal dose of tablets that contained the U-47700, but the lack of a ban meant he could not be prosecuted.
But Hendricks warned the same illicit labs that manufacture “pink” will likely only need to alter its molecular structures slightly to get around the ban with a new substance.
DHEC Director Catherine Heigel said, while there is a perception that teens are using the drug, the reality is that adults are overdosing on heroin, too. “The epidemic actually is affecting middle-aged Americans as much as the youth,” she said. “The youth are known to experiment. But we’re seeing stay-at-home moms… and the universal impact is far greater.”
South Carolina has not seen the surge in overdoses that other Northeastern and Great Lakes states have experienced, but health officials warn that is only because meth is more accessible.