New synthetic drug linked to NC deaths

Local authorities on the lookout for drug
By DeeAnna Haney | Mar 02, 2014

Local law enforcement offices have been warned to be on the lookout for a new type of synthetic drug that has been linked to three deaths in North Carolina, one of them in a neighboring county.

The drug called Acetyl Fentanyl is structurally similar to fentanyl, which is a prescribed pain medication commonly used by cancer patients via a patch that releases the drug through time release, said Dr. Ruth Winecker, chief toxicologist at the NC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

However, Acetyle Fentanyl is not the same drug.

"It's made via synthesis by mixing chemicals versus, for example, morphine, which is extracted from poppies," Winecker said, adding that it's being made overseas.

"It would require a fairly sophisticated lab environment in order to make it," Winecker said.

According to the Center for Disease Control, the previously undocumented drug is up to five times more potent than heroin.

Winecker said most who have been found using the drug are injecting it as a powder, but it has also been found in tablet form. The side effects are similar to other opioid drugs and can cause nausea, dizziness, euphoria and death.

The drug has been around since the 1960s, but has only recently shown up in overdose cases in emergency rooms and medical examiner's offices beginning last year, she said.

Authorities first became familiar with the drug when Rhode Island officials reported 14 overdose deaths between March and June of 2013.

The OCME has been on the lookout for the drug in North Carolina since reports from Pennsylvania and Louisiana linked it to additional deaths. The age of those who died from the overdoses ranged from 19 to 57 years old and 10 of them were male.

According to a press release from the NC Department of Health and Human Services, toxicologists at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner detected acetyl fentanyl in specimens associated with deaths that occurred in January in Sampson, Person and Transylvania counties, however the final death certificates in those cases are pending.

"We haven't examined the evidence in any of these cases yet, but we will and we will know something later," Winecker said.

In most cases, other drugs were mixed with the acetyl fentanyl including cocaine and heroin, according to the press release. However, test results in one death showed the person used only acetyl fentanyl.

Haywood County experienced a surge in the sale and abuse of synthetic cannabinoids and some bath salts early last year. A law that went into effect later in the year covers all of the chemical combinations found in synthetics right now and has put a damper on the problem until better legislation can be drafted.

"So far the chemical combinations that were sold are all covered under the new statute," said Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed.

However, Winecker said the problem persists, even though it may just be in another form.

"It's not necessarily dying down, it's just switching from one drug to another. It's changing all the time," Winecker said of synthetics.

This is just another drug local departments must be on the lookout for. Hollingsed, who was recently appointed to the state DWI task force, said he's already heard discussions about the new designer drug in Raleigh.

"It's not a regionally specific problem but a statewide issue. Unfortunately, I think we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg as far as the dangers of this drug," he said.

Det. Mark Mease with the Haywood County Sheriff's Office said though it hasn't been found in any local cases yet, his department is on high alert.

"I believe it's something we may see in this area because for some reason these drugs tend to end up here," Mease said. "Fentanyl itself can be very deadly when it's used outside of what it's meant to be used for, so anything associated with that is something we are very concerned about."