RACINE COUNTY — A quick internet search, a simple online order and soon enough U-47700 could be at your doorstep.
U-47700 is a currently legal, synthetic opiate that is hitting the streets of the U.S. and reportedly caused two deaths in Racine County in June and July, according to Racine County Medical Examiner Michael Payne.
After those deaths and 50 throughout the nation, local and state law enforcement are working to add the drug to the state's controlled substance list, making it illegal.
Both Racine County deaths are being investigated by the Metro Drug Unit, Special Investigations Unit and Gang Task Force, according to Racine District Attorney Rich Chiapete.
“As with all of these controlled substances, we will aggressively address this issue,” Chiapete said.
U-47700 recently emerged in the United States. It is a synthetic opioid that is legal in the U.S. though is just as dangerous as other opiates, according to Payne.
Payne said the deaths in Racine County occurred on the east and west ends of the county. Both cases involved men, although he could not name the individuals because there is are open investigations into their cases. Though final autopsy reports have not come in, the deaths are confirmed to be caused by U-47700, Payne said.
One is confirmed in an adjacent county as well, according to Payne.
“This is just as dangerous, if not more dangerous than any other synthetic opiate that is illegal.” Payne said.
Many synthetic opioids are scheduled under state and federal statutes, which means they are categorized as controlled substances. What makes U-47700 legal is its chemical makeup. It is almost identical to regulated synthetics and mimics the effects of those synthetic opioids, but this exact formula was never scheduled.
“Synthetic opioid substances like U-47700 are very concerning because they are so potent, addictive and dangerous,” said Robert Bell, the Drug Enforcement Administration's Milwaukee assistant special agent in charge. “Abusing these types of powerful opioid substances could be very damaging — the results could be deadly.”
With the drug now entering the U.S., there is worry that this drug, created originally in the 1970s, will cause problems sooner rather than later, leaving many to call for action.
“U-47700 will kill you,” Payne said. “It’s something to be considered at this point a health hazard to people who elect to try this or use this.”
Bell said that because U-47700 was not approved by the FDA, and because its effects mimic those of other dangerous synthetic opiates, the risk of taking the drug is high.
“Experimenting with them is like playing Russian roulette,” Bell said. “You don’t know what you’re getting and the first time could be the last time.”
Chris Eberlein, medical adviser for the southwest region of the Department of Health Services, said the drug has the same effects as most opiates and is often mixed into a "drug cocktail."
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Once in the body, the central nervous system fails, breathing becomes harder, the body goes into respiratory arrest, then cardiac arrest and, in many cases, death.
"The cartels or whomever make them overseas will produce them in a lab to make something much more potent," Eberlein said.
Payne said he worries that because people can obtain U-47700 on the internet legally, that they will mistake it as a safe substance. However, he said that is not the case at all.
Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling said that U-47700 needs to be scheduled because of the present dangers it creates.
"I'm very concerned with the two deaths that have occurred in the county," Schmaling said. "Like any other street drug, addicts are unaware of its potency, thus causing accidental overdoses."
Scheduling to be determined
Though U-47700 is not currently listed as a controlled substance, the Wisconsin DEA and the Controlled Substances board for the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services are looking to schedule the drug in the future.
Payne said that drug trends are seen at the grassroots levels before they reach the national or even state levels.
“We’re going to see this before it reaches the federal level,” he said. “We knew we had a heroin problem before the state did.”
The DEA is investigating the drug and working with legislators to potentially schedule in the future.
“I think I can safely say steps are being taken to control it under the Federal Controlled Substances Act,” Bell said. “A lot of info needs to be gathered before that happens. The DEA is looking at the substance and evaluating with an eye toward scheduling it.”
Though it is not scheduled, prosecution is still possible for distributing the substance.
“We’re more concerned with if we identify people who are distributing the substance and putting users and others at risk,” Bell said. “Prosecution could be brought forward under the Federal Analogue Act.”
The state Controlled Substances Board will meet Sept. 20 to discuss scheduling U-47700. Though the state usually goes with what is federally scheduled, the board has the power to schedule drugs in the state.
“We’re going to put it on the next Controlled Substances Board’s agenda for potential scheduling,” said Jeff Weigand, assistant deputy secretary at the Department of Department of Safety and Professional Services.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said it is important to get drugs like this scheduled.
“While the Legislature has passed more than a dozen laws to help combat the problem, tragedies like these make it clear more needs to be done,” Vos said. “It’s essential that law enforcement has the necessary tools to fight the spread of these new drugs, which includes exploring the placement of this compound on the controlled substance list.”
With the two deaths confirmed in the county, and three confirmed in southeastern Wisconsin in the past six weeks, Payne hopes the drug is scheduled sooner rather than later.
“I don’t need another name up on my board,” Payne said.
“U-47700 will kill you ... It’s something to be considered at this point a health hazard to people who elect to try this or use this.”
— Racine County Medical Examiner Michael Payne