Mail order overdose: Deadly drug 'Pink' hits the Lowcountry

CHARLESTON COUNTY, SC (WCSC) - A deadly synthetic drug from overseas has hit the Lowcountry.

U-47700 is also called U-4, Pink or Pinky on the streets.

Nicknamed for its sometime pinkish color, the dangerous designer drug is causing dozens of deaths across the country.

Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Jason Sandoval has been working with local departments in Dorchester and Charleston counties after a series of Pink overdoses.

"It's gotten in the hands of soldiers who've returned from deployment, gotten in the hands of young people who are looking for a party," Sandoval said. "The problem is this party is Russian roulette."

The DEA placed Pink into its Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act on Nov. 14 "responding to the imminent threat to public health and safety."

The ban came after at least 46 deaths associated with the drug in 2015 and 2016, including more than thirty in New York, ten in North Carolina as well as deaths in New Hampshire, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin.

According to the DEA, from Oct. 2015 to Sept. 2016, DEA received nearly 90 reports from state and local forensic labs of Pink.

The deaths of two 13-year-old boys in Park City, Utah was also attributed to the drug.

Reports even show Pink was found in pills at Prince's estate after the superstar overdosed on another synthetic opioid, the painkiller fentanyl.

According to S.C. Law Enforcement Division spokesperson Thom Berry, Pink has caused three deaths in Spartanburg, one fatality in Lancaster Co. and "maybe" a death in Anderson. Berry said the drug has been found either independently or laced in other drugs in Berkeley Co. though no confirmed deaths have been reported to date.

However, Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten said U-4 showed on the toxicology reports of two Charleston victims.

"While that doesn't speak to how many more people have used it or may be using it, I can say we have at least two deaths," Wooten said.

The coroner said synthetic opioids such as Pink are rolling out so fast, a symptom of the nationwide heroin epidemic, that investigating overdose deaths can be harder than usual.

Sometimes toxicology reports come back negative, though drugs are expected to be the cause of death.

"We know right off the bat, the autopsy doesn't show us an explanation for this healthy person's death…but we're getting nothing back on toxicology," Wooten said. "Those are the cases where we then immediately start to wonder about a designer drug. What that means It's so new that we've not developed the test for it to detect it in the blood."

According to the DEA, Pink often mimics other drugs.

Pink can have a pinkish tint but documents from the DEA claim the drug has also been found in counterfeit pills resembling painkillers or also, a white power that imitates heroin.

While the DEA acknowledges Pink's abuse "parallels that of heroin, prescription opioids, and other novel opioids…abuse of the drug often happens unknowingly to the user."

Coroner Wooten said she suspects the Charleston Co. victims didn't know what they were getting.

"If you're using anything you buy from somebody on the street, this time may be your last dose," Wooten said.

Pink's potency is often difficult to predict as it primarily originates from illegal labs abroad.

"According to the formula, it's about seven to eight times more potent than morphine but there have been cases where it's been made such 18 times or 20 times more potent than morphine," Dr. Victoria Magid, who works at the Medical University of South Carolina's Center for Drug and Alcohol Programs.

Magid runs a program called ASSET (Adolescent Substance use Education and Training), which focuses on education, prevention, and treatment of substance use among adolescents.

"It was developed in a pharmaceutical lab as an experimental drug...and the patent got out," Dr. Magid said. "Certain countries such as China picked it up, stated making it illegal in their labs and it hit the internet where our children were able to, in a couple of clips, order some of those drugs as cheap as 30 dollars a gram."

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the drug is misleadingly marketed as a "research chemical." Sandoval said Pink's online availability, plus the fact that it can come straight to your doorstep, makes it even more difficult for drug agents to track.

"There's no way to investigate every distribution across the internet because sit comes in such relatively small quantities despite its potency, it's impossible through judicial means to track," Sandoval said.

For Coroner Wooten, another danger lies in users' thinking the drug Narcan, known to counteract the effects of an overdose, is "an insurance policy."

She said she's investigated overdose deaths where Narcan was used to no effect. According to the coroner, the drugs are so powerful, there's no time for intervention.

"We have so many of these things now that are so powerful, so strong, you can't survive 'em," Wooten said.

According to Sandoval, officers have to be "extremely careful" when investigating scenes where Pink is suspected because it's easy for police to also be exposed and possibly go into respiratory arrest. In fact, many local departments use gloves and masks during narcotics investigations as a precaution.
 
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