The NY Times has an unnerving story about the 'zombies' in Brooklyn last summer:
Drug 85 Times as Potent as Marijuana Caused a ‘Zombielike’ State in Brooklyn
By Marc Santora Dec 15, 2016
When emergency medical technicians were called to a mass casualty event in Brooklyn last summer, dispatchers used a word more associated with apocalyptic Hollywood movies than medical emergencies: zombies.
Emergency workers reported multiple people at the scene, near a subway station on Myrtle Avenue and Broadway, on the border of Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant, “all of whom had a degree of altered mental status that was described by bystanders as ‘zombielike,’” according to a study published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
In fact, they had overdosed on a designer drug — one that would raise alarms both in the medical community and drug enforcement circles and could, possibly, be a precursor of more potent and dangerous drugs still to come.
The gist - designer drug labs, often based in China, piggy-back off of legitimate drug research.
The report, based on blood and urine samples drawn from eight of the 18 men taken to area hospitals that day, offers the first detailed look at a powerful drug that has caused dozens of people to overdose. It identifies the drug as a synthetic cannabinoid called AMB-FUBINACA that was originally developed by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer.
These chemical compounds, often created in labs in China based on research conducted at western universities and pharmaceutical companies, are not regulated when they appear on the market and are hard to detect.
“And if you are someone who is regularly drug tested, it will not show up,” adding to the drugs’ appeal, Mr. Gerona said.
He traced the history of synthetic drugs back to Clemson University and a researcher, John W. Huffman, who was looking for ways to create a drug in the lab that could enhance the medicinal aspects of THC while eliminating the psychotropic effects.
In the course of his work, Mr. Huffman synthesized more than 300 compounds, and his work was published in academic literature.
Not long after, in about 2008, a synthetic compound began appearing on the street, called K2 in America and Spice in Europe. The main chemical agent, known as JWH-18, was named after the Clemson researcher.
Soon JWH-18 was showing up around the country and was eventually scheduled as a Class 1 narcotic.
The drug makers would have to evolve to stay one step ahead of law enforcement.
In the case of the drug in the Brooklyn outbreak, Pfizer established a patent for a synthetic cannabinoid it called AB-FUBINACA in 2009. The drug seems to have been abandoned by the company and was never tested on humans.
But the patent is public, and Mr. Gerona said that drug labs in China and other foreign nations scour patents for information that can be useful in creating the next generation of drugs.
These drugs move straight from the lab to the street, so the first trials of their effects are conducted on buyers.
Troubling - publishing research and getting patents are somewhat basic to moving science forward. And there are certainly reasons to hope that cannabinoids have useful medicinal properties.
Of course, synthetic opioids are also coming out of labs:
And if the dangers of synthetic cannabinoids have researchers concerned, the risks of designer opioids are perhaps even greater.
Just last month, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration issued an alert for a new designer drug called Pink, which had been responsible for 46 deaths, including 31 in New York and 10 in North Carolina.
“Pink belongs to a family of deadly synthetic opioids far more potent than morphine,” according to the agency. “It is usually imported to the United States, mainly from illicit labs in China.”
Mr. Gerona said that while it is not in the interest of dealers to kill their clients, as these synthetic compounds become increasingly potent, the risks will continue to grow.
When heroin starts looking like the safe, prudent product our War on Drugs has reached a sorry state.