A drug clinic in Austria revealed that they detected carfentanil in drug samples they had tested between October and November 2017. Although the widespread use of carfentanil has been majorly limited to various countries, Austrian authorities have prepared for an influx of so-called “synthetic opioids” through the darknet.
The United States maintained the “opioid epidemic” image long before carfentanil emerged as a major player on drug markets. But after carfentanil and other potent opioids started flooding the streets and drastically increasing the number of fatal overdoses, other countries looked to the United States in horror. No country wanted the same for their illegal drug landscape. Carfentanil-linked overdoses occur outside of the U.S. too, though. But in Austria, even the drug’s presence is rare, a drug counseling center known as Checkit reported.
Checkit found additional synthetic opioids in some of their most recent sample testing. (Checkit and publications that covered the developments in Austria used the word “synthetic” in reference to carfentanil and U-47700. Alone, the term “synthetic opioid” is possibly misleading as due to the large number of synthetic opioids used in human medicine.) In the U.S., 64,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2016. In Austria, death by opioid overdose is far less frequent and more memorable.
One publication referenced a recent fatal overdose in a report on Checkit’s findings. They wrote about a 38-year-old man who had overdosed on U-47700 in Carinthia. The man’s overdose was one of the first few attributed to U-47700. Some countries have yet to report their first carfentanil or similar opioid overdose. Some have done so only recently.
Hans Haltmayer, the Medical Director of Addiction Aid Vienna, said that he did not foresee synthetic opioids being a problem for Austria anytime soon. Haltmayer’s insight is not without value; Checkit is a joint project of Addition Aid Vienna and other medical and research organizations. He said that Austria and the United States could not accurately be compared in the context of synthetic opioid addiction. People in the U.S. have poorer treatment options, he explained. “In the US,” he said, “only 10 percent of all clinics offer substitution therapy – and that’s the treatment of choice.”
The Medical Director believes that synthetic opioids problems only emerge when governments employ restrictive drug policies and cut off access to alternative drugs. “In Bavaria, for example, after a shortage of substitution therapy, the remnants of fentanyl patches were released and consumed,” he said.
The Deputy Head of the Office for Substance Abuse at the Federal Criminal Police Office, Daniel Lichtenegger, thought differently. He explained that darknet suppliers ship synthetic opioids into the country. While he was not not sure of the location of the majority of the suppliers, he knew that many of the drugs came from labs in China. The low prices are of the appeal of synthetic opioids. Lichtenegger said that current heroin users are the most vulnerable.
Austria’s Federal Criminal Police Office already prepared internal training courses on synthetic opioids, Lichtenegger said. Investigators and consumers have the same risk: they do not know what chemical they are actually touching.