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Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office via AP
Fentanyl disguised in pill form.

Chinese drug dealers are outsmarting the FDA by creating new opioids

By Katherine Ellen Foley

What’s the easiest way to export an illegal drug? Export a slight variation of that drug.

STAT news reported April 25 that Chinese labs have created a new form of fentanyl, a powerful opioid, called furanyl fentanyl. This new iteration of the drug skirts Chinese export laws and isn’t on the US’s banned substances list—which means it’s technically legal to sell on the streets, with the same affects as the real the original drug.

“Laboratories are automatically tweaking the formula to come up with the next analog,” DEA spokesman Russell Baer Baer, told STAT. “We will seek to put furanyl fentanyl on the list (of controlled substances), and then they will tweak one molecule, and in two months we will be discussing that one. It is a challenging process for us.”

Last year, these synthetic drugs—as well as the compounds needed to make them—were “flooding“ the US from Chinese labs. In October 2015, China prohibited the export of 116 synthetic drugs, some of which included other slightly modified versions of fentanyl.

Furanyl fentanyl is just the latest drug implicated in the American opioid epidemic, which killed almost 29,000 people in 2014.In some areas in the United States, the number of fentanyl overdoses have overtaken the number of heroin overdoses. Last week, a man in Illinois died from an overdose on furanyl fentanyl.

Doctors prescribe fentanyl as a powerful painkiller, ranging from 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. In clinical settings, it’s typically only administered to patients with advanced cancer. Like other opioids, it can be incredibly addictive, and fatal if taken in large enough quantities. It suppresses the body’s ability to breath.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration trying to keep up with the latest modifications of the drug, but needs approval from the US Food and Drug Administration before it can put them on the banned substance lists. But as soon as one new form of the drug gets put on the list, laboratories find another way to alter it.