Unregulated Synthetic Opioids Are Tied to 900 Fatal Overdoses in New York City – The Wall Street Journal

Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan, at NYPD headquarters on Tuesday, said 14 fentanyl analogs have been identified in New York City overdose deaths since 2017. Photo: Ben Chapman/The Wall Street Journal

Prosecutors and law-enforcement officials are calling for a ban on unregulated synthetic opioids that are blamed for more than 900 overdose deaths in New York City since 2017.

Officials from the New York Police Department and the city’s Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor say New Yorkers are being killed by analogs of the drug fentanyl, but police and prosecutors are powerless to go after dealers because the knockoffs aren’t illegal.

They are calling on state lawmakers to pass a prohibition on all fentanyl analogs—drugs that have the same effects on users as the deadly and addictive opioid, but have slightly different chemical compositions.

Fentanyl analogs are at least as potent and dangerous as fentanyl, a controlled substance that is 50 times stronger than heroin, prosecutors and law-enforcement officials said. The analogs are often manufactured in China and sold online.

But officials said that most fentanyl analogs aren’t illegal because existing state laws controlling fentanyl are based on that drug’s chemical structure.

Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan said at a news conference at NYPD headquarters on Tuesday that 14 different fentanyl analogs have been identified in hundreds of overdose deaths in New York City since 2017—but only two of those analogs are currently prohibited under state law.

Without laws banning the drugs, Ms. Brennan said, police and prosecutors can’t use typical law-enforcement tactics—such as search warrants, wiretaps and, ultimately, arrests—to stem their distribution and use.

“We are sorely handicapped in our efforts to control this deadly substance,” Ms. Brennan said.

“New variations of the drugs appear frequently and the potency of the analogs may actually be higher than fentanyl,” she added.

Ms. Brennan said the state legislature should pass a prohibition on all fentanyl analogs, regardless of their chemical structure. She also said lawmakers in Albany should provide funding for a study of the drugs, which are often mixed with heroin or cocaine.

One such ban on fentanyl analogs already exists at the federal level, Ms. Brennan said, but a local version is needed to enable police and prosecutors to save the lives of users who might be ingesting the drug unknowingly.

Statistics compiled by the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor show an alarming rise in the number of deaths in New York City caused by fentanyl analogs, Ms. Brennan said. According to her office, fentanyl analogs were associated with more than 320 deaths in New York City in 2017 and more than 370 deaths in 2018.

NYPD Deputy Chief Emanuel Katranakis, commanding officer of the forensic-investigations division, said NYPD laboratories have encountered dozens of cases involving fentanyl analogs and more funding is needed to study the drugs.

“Currently we do have some capability, but there are challenges that we do face every single day,” said Deputy Chief Katranakis, who didn’t specify how much money the NYPD needs to expand crime-lab operations.

The state Legislature isn’t scheduled to be in session again until January. A representative for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

A spokesman for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat, said Mr. Cuomo has acted to ban synthetic marijuana and dozens of synthetic opioids.

A spokeswoman for state Senate Republicans said GOP lawmakers previously passed a ban on synthetic marijuana, but were blocked by Democrats who control the State Assembly. A spokesman for Assembly Democrats didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Appeared in the July 24, 2019, print edition as ‘Police, Prosecutors Press Legislators to Outlaw Opioid Knockoffs.’