More than 650 years ago, a plague known as the Black Death decimated Eurasia, spreading across countries with ruthless speed, leaving millions dead in its wake. Today, we’re in the midst of a different kind of plague, a pandemic of drug overdose with opioids at the epicenter.
While the death toll has yet to reach the staggering levels of the Black Death, it’s only gotten higher in recent years and shows no signs of slowing down. In the US, drug overdoses were responsible for more than 360,000 deaths between 2009 and 2016, with a cumulative jump of roughly 25,500 more deaths in 2016 than 2009. What is most troubling about this rise is that, while the rates have steadily grown by about 1,000 to 3,000 per year, the jump in mortality rates from 2015 to 2016 was 10,000.
The United States makes up about four percent of the world’s population but accounts for roughly 27 percent of the world’s drug overdose deaths. In 2016, according to the CDC, there were 64,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States, with opioids accounting for more than half of them. And now the opioid crisis has a frightening new face with a strangely familiar name: Gray Death.
What is in Gray Death?
Gray Death gets its name partly from its ashy appearance, which is described as similar to concrete mixing powder, also coming in the form of rocks or chunks. The “Death” part is, of course, due to how incredibly dangerous it is, to the point where it can kill you with a single dose. And when you consider the ingredients that make Gray Death so astonishingly potent, it’s not hard to see how.
So far, medical experts have been unable to elucidate all of the specific contents of Gray Death, as it is a cocktail of many synthetic opioids, the amounts of which can vary depending on who makes it and how they do it. However, there are at least four ingredients that are the key components of the drug:
- Heroin: a highly-addictive opioid drug made from morphine and is commonly abused for its euphoric effects. It accounted for more than 12,000 overdose deaths in 2015.
- U-47700: A designer drug with effects similar to that of an opioid, but 7.5 times stronger than morphine. U-47700 was developed in the 1970s with the goal of treating severe pain associated with surgery and cancer but was never actually tested on humans or implemented. However, the patent for it is publicly available, with instructions on how to produce it, making it easy for drug labs to create and sell it.
- Fentanyl: An opioid pain medication that is 100 times more powerful than morphine. Also meant to be used as a surgical anesthetic, Fentanyl abuse is growing at an alarming rate quickly moving to the forefront of the opioid crisis with a 540 percent rise in overdose deaths in the last three years. In 2016, Fentanyl was responsible for more than 20,000 deaths. In 2012, Fentanyl was detected in roughly four percent of overdose deaths in the US. In 2017, in just the span of January to August, it was found in 81 percent overdose deaths.
- Carfentanil: An analog of Fentanyl, Carfentanil is one of the most potent commercially-used opioids, meant to be used as a tranquilizer for large animals like elephants. It is a whopping 10,000 times stronger than morphine, with a toxicity that has been compared to that of nerve gas. Carfentanil is often taken by users who believe they are taking heroin, as heroin is increasingly being cut with Carfentanil or just sold as heroin since Carfentanil is cheaper, easier to acquire, and easier to make.
How Do You Use Gray Death?
Gray Death comes in the form of powder, rocks, and chunks and can be taken in the usual ways:
This drug can also be taken in other, unexpected ways that sound almost unbelievable, as if it were a hoax intended to scare people. It can be absorbed into the bloodstream just from skin contact and even accidentally inhaled if the powder goes airborne, with both methods strong enough to rapidly trigger an overdose and potentially fatal respiratory depression.
It was one of these instances that put Gray Death in the news and into the public consciousness. In May, after arresting two suspects who had what was believed to be Gray Death in their car, a police officer in East Liverpool, Ohio merely brushed some excess powder off his shirt with his bare hand and passed out minutes later.
What are the Effects of Gray Death?
The most obvious effect of even minimal exposure to Gray Death is, in fact, death. Many heroin users looking for a stronger high are flocking to it for its presumably euphoric effects typically produced by opioids, but its lethal depressive effects kick in almost as soon as the high itself does. From what forensic experts have been able to glean, the effects of Gray Death include:
- Pinpoint pupils
- Shallow breathing
- Loss of consciousness
- Heart failure
Can the Effects of Gray Death Overdose be Reversed?
Typically, medics will use a drug called Naloxone to combat a heroin overdose. Naloxone is a powerful opioid antagonist that can reverse the effects of an overdose by completely blocking the brain’s opioid receptors. It can shock the body with its intensity and is reserved for overdose emergencies. Medics have been reporting needing up to 10 times more Naloxone to successfully reverse the effects of a Gray Death overdose.
A Deadly Addition to the Opioid Epidemic
Like the plague to which it bears a similar name, Gray Death has been rapidly spreading throughout the South. Georgia alone has seen 17 overdoses and 50 incidents involving Gray Death from January to May. Deneen Kilcrease, a forensic chemist at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, told the Associated Press that “Gray death is one of the scariest combinations that I have ever seen in nearly 20 years of forensic chemistry drug analysis.”
The DEA has accused China of being the United States’ primary source of Fentanyl, along with other synthetic opioids used in Gray Death, though Chinese officials deny it.
For now, Gray Death remains as baffling as it is deadly, with each batch containing variations in ingredients and potency that makes it almost impossible to fully identify if not for the signature gray color. Unlike other opioids, its main danger is not its addictive quality, but that using it will most likely kill someone long before they use enough to become dependent.