Carfentanil – Is it The Most Dangerous Illicit Drug?


Carfentanil – Is it The Most Dangerous Illicit Drug?

For the past few years, public discourse about the most dangerous illicit drug has been focused on fentanyl. While fentanyl is undoubtedly one of the most insidious and deadly opioids to proliferate in the United States in recent years, there is a new drug threat called carfentanil which is 100 times more potent than fentanyl.

What is carfentanil?

Despite the fact that most people haven’t heard of carfentanil, the drug has been around for some time. First synthesized in 1974 by the Janssen Pharmaceutical Company and sold under the trade name of Wildnil®,  (4-  carbomethoxy fentanyl) is an analogue of the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

Carfentanil is nearly odorless and comes in many forms, including powder, pills, sprays, liquids, and patches. Like other opioid derivatives, carfentanil can be taken intravenously, orally, or nasally. Although it usually resembles powdered cocaine or heroin, samples of this drug have been found that are in various shades including brown, yellow and pink.

Carfentanil is a powerful derivative of fentanyl, which itself is a synthetic narcotic analgesic derived from morphine. While fentanyl is about 100 times more potent than morphine, carfentanil is estimated to be 100 times more powerful than fentanyl. This means that it is an incredible 10,000 times more potent than morphine.

carfentanyl ppe

Members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police go through a decontamination procedure in Vancouver, British Columbia, in June 2016 after intercepting a package containing approximately one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of the opioid carfentanil imported from China. (Royal Canadian Mounted Police via AP/AP)

Carfentanil is not approved for human use in any way, however it is used by veterinarians to tranquilize and sedate farm animals, or large wild animals like elephants, rhinos, bison or moose who require care. For example, wildlife rangers use combinations of drugs (including carfentanil) for sedating wild bison. Because it is so potent, veterinarians who use carfentanil wear protective gear, such as gloves and face shields, when administering the drug. In the U.S., veterinarians must have a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) number and be on the approved user’s list.

Two notable examples highlight the dangers of carfentanil. First, the Buffalo Field Campaign based out of Yellowstone National Park warns that humans should not eat the meat of bison who have been sedated with it because it can enter the human’s body and cause an overdose. There is no evidence that this has happened, but it is still cause for concern.

Second, there was a horrifying incident in Moscow in 2002 where Russian authorities used a chemical gas based on carfentanil to end a Chechen hostage crisis at a theater in 2002 and ended up killing 170 people with an aerosolized dose. Although all of the hostage takers ended up dead, the majority of the people who died were innocent theater attendees.

Opioid Addiction and Carfentanil

Unlike heroin, morphine, or other opioid derived drugs, carfentanil does not lead to addiction simply because it is too strong to use by people who have not developed a tolerance to strong narcotics like heroin or fentanyl. They die before they can become addicted. Even for patients who are heavily addicted to other opioids, a dose of carfentanil the size of a grain of salt can result in overdose and death.

Despite its incredible dangers, carfentanil has been used by dealers as an additive to the heroin and fentanyl that is sold on the streets to increase the potency of the drugs they sell. Emergency medical and law enforcement officials caution that carfentanil that is distributed illicitly has the appearance of many other drugs commonly found on the street, including heroin and cocaine and heroin. Carfentanil, like fentanyl, has been found cutting heroin in order to increase its potency and the heroin dealer’s supply of the substance.

The dose used to cut heroin is typically so small that forensic chemists often have a hard time finding it. Even so, that small amount is enough to send a person into an overdose.

Effects on the Brain

Carfentanil rapidly binds to opioid receptors in the brain and overwhelms its neural chemistry, which leads to extremely rapid overdose symptoms.

Effects on the Body:

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Carfentanil overdose symptoms can start within minutes of exposure and that a person experiencing the following symptoms should seek immediate medical attention:

  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Sudden drowsiness
  • Slowed or depressed breathing
  • Sedation
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Clammy or sweaty skin

Because these symptoms can appear very shortly after exposure to carfentanil, the DEA recommends that a dose of naloxone be administered immediately in order to slow down the overdose long enough for emergency medical services to arrive and treat the individual.

New Life Can Help

As we mentioned above, addiction to carfentanil is unlikely simply because the drug is so deadly on its own. The real risk is that a user of illicit opioids will receive a dose of their drug of choice that is laced with carfentanil and that they die from that. The way that someone can be safe from the effects of this drug is to deal with their underlying condition, which is addiction to opioids.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction to opioids or other substances, then New Life Medical Addiction Services can help. To speak to someone at New Life, call us at: 856-942-3700 or send us a Text Message.

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