What Is the Gray Death?
Just as public health officials and communities endeavor to create strategies that combat America’s addiction crisis, the crisis changes with new drugs, new drug use trends, and other factors that complicate the crisis and create new problems. Sadly, every time the epidemic of addiction in America evolves, new deaths follow.
Case in point, one of the more recent developments in some midwestern and southern states is a new hybrid drug being colloquially called the “Gray Death.” It’s a dangerous combination of opioid drugs, namely heroin, fentanyl, carfentanil, and a synthetic opioid called U-47700.
The Gray Death is aptly named, given that researchers have already linked several overdose fatalities to the new concoction. If fast action is not taken to help those addicted to this new drug and to prevent more people from using it, many Americans will die from this “super-opioid.”
Multiple States Record Overdoses from New Drug
From Ohio to Alabama, Pennsylvania to Georgia and Florida, investigators are discovering a new drug that looks like a concrete or cement mix but which combines several opioids and other chemicals. From Deneen Kilcrease, the manager of the chemistry section at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, “Gray death is one of the scariest combinations that I have ever seen in nearly 20 years of forensic chemistry drug analysis. Gray death ingredients and their concentrations are unknown to users, making it particularly lethal. And because these strong drugs can be absorbed through the skin, simply touching the powder puts users at risk.”
When new drug concoctions surface, they tend to spread. Today it’s Georgia, Alabama, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida that are reporting gray death overdoses. Which states will be reporting overdoses tomorrow?
Defining the Ingredients in Gray Death
While addicts never know exactly what they’re getting when they take this new drug, researchers have been able to identify four common ingredients in gray death (though there are variations, batch to batch). The main ingredients are:
- U-47700. In 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration placed U-47700 in the category of the most dangerous drugs it regulates. U-47700 is an extremely potent opioid, a synthetic, man-made substance similar to heroin and some prescription pain relievers.
- Heroin. While gray death is much more potent than heroin (due to its other ingredients), gray death usually does have heroin in it. Heroin is an addictive, analgesic drug derived from morphine, which is in turn derived from the seed pods of the opium poppy plant.
- Fentanyl. Ten times more potent than heroin and 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, fentanyl is an extremely powerful and addictive synthetic opioid. Fentanyl is so strong that it is the leading killer in drug-related overdose death incidents. Fentanyl is said to be the main driver behind the soaring overdose death rates of the last several years. An extremely small amount of fentanyl, even just 0.25 mg of the drug, can be lethal when consumed.
- Carfentanil. A potent opioid that has no intended use for humans and is only sparingly used in the veterinary and zoology fields as a large animal tranquilizer, carfentanil is thought to be 100 times more potent than fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine. Carfentanil is so powerful and toxic to humans that even just getting some of the drug on one’s exposed skin can lead to a fatal overdose.
“... drugs like ‘gray death’ are so strong, they can be absorbed through the skin and can affect someone who simply touches the powder.”
The above drugs are already quite dangerous, even more so when combined. But the risk factors connected to gray death do not end there. The United States Drug Enforcement Administration added that there is additional risk in experimenting with gray death, because even though the above drugs are thought to be the main ingredients, there is no way of knowing exactly what is in any given batch of the substance. Quoting a DEA press release, “Since this drug is created in illegal underground labs, users can’t possibly know exactly what they are ingesting or how potent it is. In addition, drugs like ’gray death’ are so strong, they can be absorbed through the skin and can affect someone who simply touches the powder.” Users take their lives into their hands when they experiment with gray death.
Where Cases of Gray Death are Cropping Up
According to the AP News report cited earlier, cases of gray death overdoses have been recorded in Georgia, namely the Atlanta area. At least 50 cases were reported, each with different batches of gray death that had slightly different chemical compositions.
At least eight samples of gray death have been seized by law enforcement in Ohio, namely in the Cincinnati area. The seized drug samples in Ohio are concerning because Ohio had already been experiencing one of the worst per capita death tolls from opioid-related drug overdoses in the country (and that was before the gray death samples were found). Given the appearance of the new drug, overdose deaths may spike in Ohio again.
What You Can Do About Gray Death
It’s important to know what this drug looks like, because gray death is a drug concoction so dangerous that it is not even safe to touch it, much less consume it. From the Partnership to End Addiction, “Gray death looks like concrete mix. It varies in consistency from a hard, chunky material to a fine powder. It is much more potent than heroin. People use the drug by injecting, swallowing, smoking or snorting it.”
Given the serious risk created by gray death and the individual drugs that go into it (fentanyl, heroin, carfentanil, U-47700, and others), someone who is using this drug or any of the drugs ingredients that comprise it is at serious risk of an overdose. If you know someone addicted to opioids, please take fast action to get them help at a qualified drug and alcohol treatment center.
The best thing you can do to counter the spread of gray death and other opioid concoctions is to assist addicts in seeking treatment. When the demand for such drugs goes down due to addicts getting clean, dealers will stop making the drugs, and the supply will dry up.
Please don’t wait until it is too late and a family member or loved one overdoses and dies from their addiction. Get them help at a treatment center. Every accidental overdose is preventable. Every opioid overdose death is preventable.
Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, RAS, LADC, MCAP, LCDC