Published Online: 1988
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Historically, drugs of abuse have come from two sources: plant products and diverted pharmaceuticals. Today, new, totally synthetic drugs produced by clandestine laboratories have become an increasingly important source of abused substances. Of particular concern are the fentanyls, a family of very potent narcotic analgesics, which first appeared on the streets in California in 1979 under the name “China White.” At least 10 different analogs have been identified to date and are thought to be responsible for over 100 overdose deaths. The fentanyls are not used by any particular ethic or age group, but rather by the general heroin using population. Their use, however, does seem to be restricted to suburban, rather than urban areas, and almost exclusively to the state of California. The most potent analogs, the 3-methy- and beta-hydroxy-fentanyls, may be up to 1000 times as potent as heroin, but are not chemically related to the opiates and therefore not detected by conventional narcotic screening tests. However, using a sensitive radioimmunoassay highly specific for the fentanyls they can be measured at the very low concentrations observed in body fluids, generally less than 10 ng/mL. It is likely that, as efforts to restrict the importation of natural products and prevent diversion of pharmaceuticals become more effective, the fentanyls and other synthetics will become increasingly important drugs of abuse.
Associate professor, School of Medicine, University of California, CA
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