Opiate abuse in America is like squeezing the toothpaste tube – it goes this way, and squeeze here – it goes that way.

The US Government has managed to operate seemingly without any analytical capacity in predicting the trends of illicit drugs, their production and distribution.  Squeeze on one end of the tube, hope for the best.

The coming trend will be in synthetic opiate production.  “Natural heroin” might be a thing of the past within five years.  Will we stay ahead of it?

Scary Shit

The clandestine manufacture of high potency synthetic opiates is the “fracking” of the illicit drug industry.  The capacity to manufacture unit doses at a trivial price is already there.

A great deal of the price of illicit things involves their movement.  Some illicit things are high-bulk, low-price stuff such as marijuana, which is basically an agricultural product.  Movement of bales of “happy hay” requires mass movement of stuff.  The amount that can fit in a briefcase seems substantial, but compared to other substances, isn’t.

How does one calculate a unit dose of an illicit substance? A depressingly accurate statistic to use in comparing drugs is their lethality.  How much is lethal in single dose to approximately 50% of (ab)users?  That’s LD50  The “safety margin” is the ratio of effective dose to lethal dose.  in such things as Cannabis, there is no proper lethal dose, just based on its physiology.

LD50, the amount of drug to cause a lethal overdose, is relevant in more physiological drugs such as cocaine.  The LD50 of cocaine is discussed as around 100 mg/kg, or 10-4 in body weight ratio.  As such, it is not far from alcohol, which is around 0.5% or 5×10-4

Even More Scary Shit

Heroin is around 10mg. pure, or approximately 10-5 gram/gram (drug to body weight.)  A pure synthetic analogue, fentanyl, comes in on the LD50 at about 3.1 milligrams per kilogram, 3.x 10-6 in rats, and, 0.03 mg/kg, or 3 x 10-8 in monkeys.

Suddenly, one realizes that the nature of the illicit business is far different from that of marijuana smugglers.  If one assumes a ED/LD of 10% a guess which has killed many a drug abuser, one LD50 of a certain substance comes out to about ten dose equivalents.

A gram of fentanyl represents 1/3 x 10-8 or 3 x 107 doses of narcotic.  That’s a deadly little package, and it represents far more than a million dollars worth of illicit product.  And fentanyl’s been in existence since 1960 – over fifty years of opportunity for clandestine narcotics manufacturers to get good at.  And, unlike some of the more complex drugs such as cocaine, the synthesis is not complex.

Believe It, Even More Scary Shit

And it gets far worse.  That’s just fentanyl.  Several other synthetic analogues of fentanyl are more potent by far.  [Potency just means the dose units of drug per unit mass.]

On a gram-per-dose basis, drugs such as carfentanyl and sufentanyl far exceed the potency of their drug of origin, fentanyl.  Lofentanil was used effectively in anaesthesia research at 0.50 micrograms, for the standard human, described as 70kg. That’s about 1 nanogram/kg, or 109 doses per gram.

In this range, huge doses of fentanyl could be placed in a makeup kit; and equivalent amounts of sufentanil and lofentanil, in a compressed tablet the size of an aspirin.

 The challenge for narcotraficantes isn’t really getting enough drug to the destination – it’s processing on the end.  If clowns receiving pure fentanyl derivatives don’t know what they’re doing, they could kill themselves, or spread hundreds of thousands of doses of fatal narcotic to the junkie market.

 What If I Hate Junkies, Anyhow?

 When one considers things of this potency in their effect on human beings, one gets a displeasing revelation.  Cyanide – that bad stuff – is only about 5mg/kg, or 5 x 10-6 for its LD50.  That makes it far safer to handle than the fentanyl analogues.

If it’s that lethal, it must be interesting to terrorists.  A milligram of the high-end fentanyls, released in an enclosed space, is terrifying.  Remember, that’s only a puff of powder into an air intake.  That’s enough to kill at least 3,000 monkeys if ingested, and we are suspiciously like monkeys.  Airplanes are enclosed spaces.  Voila!  Narcoterrorism.

A plane is flying, stops communicating via human radio feedback, and sometime after, crashes.  The wreckage is found – but no evidence to show any mechanical error or explosive damage.  It just all of a sudden quit flying under human power, and some time thereafter, crashed.  Why?

Once the clandestine labs start making gram-quantities of things such as high-potency fentanyl derivatives, they’ll be on the market.  The manufacturers may well be victims of their own success.  After the first batch or two of the high-potency drugs hits the market, it will become glutted, and ten-dollar doses of narcotics might only fetch 10¢ a pop, the year later.  This is why deregulation of illicits has its upside – open the market, and the manufacturers will drive themselves out of business!  (ideally.)

Technology will always come up with something new and lethal.  The only way to stop it is by reinforcing normal civilization, so that it resists malicious actions by hostile persons.  That’s harder than doing science.