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An increase in potent "Frankenstein opioids" prompts warning from Ohio attorney general

Fentanyl-laced pills add to spike in overdoses
Fentanyl-laced pills add to spike in overdoses 02:23

A growing presence of dangerous synthetic opioids called nitazenes in Ohio has prompted a warning from the state's Attorney General Dave Yost. The drugs, nicknamed "Frankenstein opioids," have been deemed a public health concern by the Drug Enforcement Administration and are not approved for medical use anywhere in the world.

In the first quarter of 2022, officials reported 143 nitazene cases in Ohio, which is an increase from 27 cases reported in the same quarter in 2021. The drugs can be 1.5 to 40 times more potent than fentanyl and have contributed to deaths across the United States and Canada, according to a bulletin from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation Laboratory Division.

"Frankenstein opioids are even more lethal than the drugs already responsible for so many overdose deaths," Yost said in a statement Wednesday. "Law enforcement and the public need to pay attention to these emerging hazards."

Synthesized in the 1950s for research, nitazene compounds are synthetic opioids that belong to a drug class called benzimidazole-opioids, according to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation Laboratory Division. The DEA says the substances are likely obtained through unregulated sources, which often makes the identity, purity and quantity of them uncertain and inconsistent. According to Yost, the drugs are made in clandestine labs. 

Nitazene compounds are typically combined with other drugs like fentanyl, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. In the cases in Ohio, the compounds appeared in a variety of colors, including white, black, orange and green. They were also discovered in various forms, including powder, solid substance, liquid from syringes and residues, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation Laboratory Division said.

Since the compounds are highly addictive and "can induce dose-dependent respiratory depression," the bulletin said the synthetic opioids "pose an increased risk for accidental overdoses, especially when combined with other substances that suppress the Central Nervous System." 

The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation Laboratory Division says additional doses of naxolone — a drug that helps reverse overdoses — may be required in nitazene cases. First responders and officers are encouraged to handle any items that may contain nitazenes or fentanyl-related contents with caution and the appropriate personal protective equipment. 

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