Current efforts to deal with the ongoing opioid addiction crisis in the U.S. have been focusing on the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and market the product. However, a recent story from Portland, Oregon about an 18-year-old girl who died from an opioid overdose highlights another, even more sinister aspect to the issue. It involves “cryptocurrencies,” the “Dark Web” and synthetic opioids that are created in basement labs overseas.

Last year, the American Society of Addiction Medicine reported over 52,000 deaths in the U.S. due to drug overdoses. 20,000 of those were due to prescription opioids, while 13,000 were caused by heroin, making prescription and “natural” opioids the nation’s leading cause of accidental death. Synthetic opioids are a recent development. A Portland police detective who investigated the girl’s death said, “We’d never done a case like this…we weren’t familiar with the substance, and we had no idea where it came from.”

It turns out that the victim was taking a drug known as U-47700. Called “pinky” and “U4” by street dealers and their customers, this drug was first developed by Upjohn (now owned by Pfizer) in the 1970s as an alternative to morphine. The drug never received FDA approval and never went into production. On the other hand, U-47700 was never prohibited by drug and narcotics laws, either – so it fell into a legal gray area. For decades, the drug was virtually non-existent, until it resurfaced in October of 2015.

That was when the DEA discovered U-47700 being sold on the streets. However, they had no idea who was manufacturing the drug or where it came from. Over the next twelve months, there were nearly fifty deaths recorded due to U-47700 overdoses, leading to its classification as a Schedule I narcotic. That classification is used for the most dangerous illicit drugs, since even a small dose of U-47700 can be fatal.

It turns out that U-47700 is being manufactured in Chinese labs, where many other synthetic opioids are made. Today, thanks to a part of the Internet known as the “Dark Web,” it has become easy for the purveyors of such drugs to connect with customers all over the world.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “Dark Web” refers to a vast, encrypted network of websites that cannot be found through regular search engines and can only be accessed with the use of special Internet browsers that make users virtually invisible. Online transactions between drug dealers and buyers are facilitated through the use of new “cryptocurrencies” such as Bitcoin, enabling parties to bypass banks and other centralized financial transaction systems.

Because of this, law enforcement is having great difficulty in cracking down on the trade of illegal opioids. Although the FBI announced their agents had solved the problem when they took down the “Silk Road” – an infamous Dark Web drug marketplace – in 2013, it has become an elaborate game of “whack-a-mole.” For every illegal drug website that is taken down by authorities, two more pop up to take its place. As a result, these opioids are more easily available to vast numbers of people who would have otherwise never known where to find them.

Big Pharma certainly bears responsibility for the role it has played in the opioid addiction crisis – but until law enforcement and governments find ways to deal with the new online black market, the crisis will only continue to worsen.  

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.