“Gray Death is one of the scariest combinations that I have ever seen in nearly 20 years of forensic chemistry drug analysis.”
~ Deneen Kilcrease, Georgia Bureau of Investigation
A dangerous new opioid threat is growing in the United States – “Gray Death” – and it is so overwhelmingly potent that users risk overdose and death with just a single dose. And the difference between living and dying is measured in micrograms.
This is just another painful reminder that the opioid epidemic is still ongoing and, worse, is evolving in unexpected and frightening ways.
What Is Gray Death?
“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, Director of Forensic Chemistry, Cayman Chemical
Gray Death is an illicit drug combination that is made up of several opioids which together are ALREADY responsible for thousands of overdose fatalities every year:
- Heroin—almost 13,000 deaths in 2015
- U-47700—7 and-a-half TIMES STRONGER than morphine
- Fentanyl—Up to 50 TIMES STRONGER than heroin
- Carfentanil—Up to 100 TIMES STRONGER than fentanyl, or TEN THOUSAND TIMES MORE POTENT than morphine.
Carfentanil has no legitimate use in humans. In fact, it is used to tranquilize large animals like elephants.
The drug combination resembles concrete mixing powder, and it can be injected, swallowed, smoked, or snorted. Because so many extremely powerful drugs as part of the combination, Iula said, “A lethal dose is not even visible to the eye.”
What Makes Gray Death So Dangerous?
“This is something that I want to be very clear about and it’s not a scare tactic and it’s not a shock factor. This is not a drug that you use to get high, if you put this drug into your body you will die, it will kill you. There’s a reason why it’s been nicknamed Grey Death. It is deadly.”
~ Clay Hammac, Commander for the Shelby County, Alabama, Drug Enforcement Task Force
Every opioid causes respiratory depression, which is usually the cause of death in an opioid overdose. And the stronger the particular drug, the more difficult it is to breathe.
In the case of Gray Death, it is so powerful that even multiple doses of naloxone, the anti-opioid emergency medication, may not be administered fast enough to resuscitate someone in the middle of an overdose.
In fact, up to 10 doses of naloxone may be needed to reverse a Gray Death overdose.
Of cause for alarm for law enforcement and other first responders is the fact that Gray Death can even be absorbed through the skin. This means that emergency personnel need to wear protective clothing just to render aid to the very people they are there to help. And that delay may end up costing lives.
An Increase in Synthetic Opioids
The story of the rise of mostly-or-completely synthetic drugs like Gray Death and its component ingredients is simply one of dollars and cents. Multiple interconnected factors came into play to create the current situation.
It Started with Prescription Pain Pills
First, extremely-potent opioid painkillers such as OxyContin came into vogue here in America. Aggressive targeted marketing and misleading Big Pharma claims caused doctors to wildly overprescribe opioid pain pills to their patients.
How big was – and IS – the overprescription problem?
- In 2012 alone, there were enough opioid pain medication prescriptions written to give every single American adult their own personal bottle of pills.
- On an average day in 2015, over 650,000 opioid prescriptions were dispensed, and 3900 used a prescription opioid nonmedically for the very first time.
But while the number of painkilling prescriptions and the amount of medication contained within them has skyrocketed, the level of pain reported by patients has stayed the same.
The Opioid Epidemic Arrives
The claims by huge pharmaceutical companies such as Purdue Pharma that their products were not addictive turned out to be false.
- Right now, there are more than TWO MILLION Americans age 12 or older who have a substance abuse disorder involving prescription opioids.
- In 2015, over 20,000 people died because of a prescription painkiller overdose.
Rule Changes as a Response to the Opioid Crisis
The US Food and Drug Administration, the US Surgeon General, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all issued warnings and guidelines about how and when opioid painkillers should be prescribed.
As a result, prescription opioids became harder and more expensive to obtain.
This leaves millions of already-opioid-dependent or addicted people scrambling for alternative.
Marijuana Legalization Plays a Role
At the same time, the public perception and legal status of marijuana is changing. Because most states allow medical marijuana and more states are making it legal for recreational use, the demand for illegal marijuana has plummeted.
- The DEA reports that since 2015, marijuana seizures have declined every year.
- The amount of illegal marijuana seized in 2015 was less than half of what it was in 2010.
This leaves drug cartels scrambling for a new product.
The Return of Heroin
Heroin became the answer for both opioid addicts and drug cartels.
The cartels swapped marijuana crops for opium poppy crops in many of their fields. In 2014, Mexico’s opium production increased by 50%.
Now, 94% of the heroin in the United States comes from Mexico. In 2014, U.S. law enforcement agencies seized THREE TIMES the amount of heroin confiscated in 2009.
This is the supply.
The demand comes from opioid addicts who are finding it harder and harder to obtain their pain pills.
- 80% of heroin addicts start out by misusing prescription opioids.
- In 2014, 94% of people in treatment for opioid addiction say they switched from because prescription painkillers were “far more expensive and harder to obtain”.
- A single dose of cheap “black tar” heroin costs as little as $5.
- For comparison, OxyContin pills can cost up to $80 apiece on the street.
It is definitely NOT a marriage made in Heaven, however.
- By 2015, 591,000 Americans age 12 or older had a substance abuse disorder involving heroin.
- That is roughly a 170% increase since 2007.
- 2007-2014, DEA arrests for heroin DOUBLED.
- In 2014, DEA heroin arrests surpassed marijuana arrests for the first time.
- 2000-2013, the rate of heroin overdose deaths nearly QUADRUPLED.
- 2000-2010 that rate rose by a yearly average of 6%.
- However, 2010-2013, the rate jumped to 37% per year.
- In 2015, there were 12,990 fatal heroin overdoses in the United States.
The Switch to Synthetic Opioids
Again, the surge in synthetic opioids is due to money – it is much cheaper (and easier) to create products in a small lab space than it is to cultivate opium fields. The costs, the manpower, the logistics, and the risk are less.
Powerful synthetic opioids are also the solution to low-grade heroin.
Synthetics like Gray Death and its components are often added to – or even substituted for – inferior, substandard product, exponentially increasing its potency.
“Russian Roulette with Your Life”
“The Mexican cartels, they don’t tell their supplier what’s in the drugs. It’s not going to a chemistry lab for them to test it.”
~ Deputy Nick Ernstes, Hancock County, Indiana, Sheriff’s Department
This creates an additional danger—opioid addicts may be completely unaware that they have been given Gray Death instead of their usual drug. That mistake can result in a fatal overdose.
This what happened to Richie Webber, who survived a Gray Death overdose. He says, “You don’t know what you’re getting with these things. Every time you shoot up, you’re literally playing Russian roulette with your life.”
“More Afraid of Withdrawal Than Overdose…”
Although it may seem counterproductive to create a product that can instantly kill customers, that isn’t really a concern for drug cartels. They know that, unfortunately, there is always a demanding market for anything that promises to sate the cravings of their opioid-addicted customers.
It’s the nature of addiction.
Chronic drug abuse leads to tolerance – a need for ever-increasing amounts of the drug to get the desired effect. In other words, their accustomed dose no longer gets them high.
But it also leads to dependence – changes within the brain that leave the user unable to feel “normal” without the drug. In fact, when the drug is no longer available, a drug-dependent person will begin to experience harshly-unpleasant physical and psychological symptoms.
This is the “sickness” described by many people addicted to heroin or other opiates.
This is known as withdrawal, and it can be so painful that it pushes them right back into using. Withdrawal starts within just a few hours after the last dose.
So when a desperate heroin addict who already in withdrawal is offered something to ease their pain – such as Gray Death – they take it, with very little reservation.
Robin Parsons, Director of Adult Services at Fairbanks Hospital in Indianapolis, says, “Instead of running from (Gray Death), addicts are running towards it because they feel it’s strong enough to help them not get sick.”