A drug used by veterinarians to sedate elephants, rhinos, and other large animals is now ending up on the streets—with deadly consequences.
Carfentanil, one of the strongest opioids in the world, is suspected in a new rash of overdoses around the country, The Associated Press reported Thursday. It's been found mixed with or disguised as heroin.
An Ohio man was charged with murder this week in Columbus for selling carfentanil that led to two deaths and nine other overdoses within a few hours. Some of the survivors thought they were just taking heroin, the AP reported. Rayshon Alexander, the suspected dealer, pled not guilty.
The drug has also been suspected in overdoses or seized in central Kentucky and the Tampa Bay and Sarasota areas in Florida.
Officials say it's the latest deadly addition in an arms war of drug dealers looking to create the strongest highs, no matter the consequences to their customers. "They know that's the high that'll take you right up to the edge, maybe kill you, maybe not," Joseph Pinjuh, the head of a drug task force for the U.S. attorney in Cleveland, told the AP. "That's the high that they want."
The new cases come as law enforcement officials are already struggling to deal with fentanyl, an extremely potent painkiller that's been used in heroin and also led to overdoses. But carfentanil is 100 times stronger than fentanyl.
When used on on animals, veterinarians wear face masks, gloves, and aprons covering as much of their skin as possible. A single drop that splashes in your mouth, nose, or eye could be fatal, and even getting some on your skin is dangerous. An antidote for the drug is kept ready whenever a tranquilizer is being prepared.
"Our veterinarians handle it almost like uranium," Dr. Rob Hilsenroth, the executive director of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians, told me. "This blows my mind that people are playing with such a dangerous drug."
Carfentanil is so strong that it's referenced as the drug used to tranquilize a tyrannosaurus rex in the 1997 movie The Lost World: Jurassic Park. And naloxone, a typical overdose antidote administered by police, may not be effective enough to stop the drug's effects.
This isn't the first drug for animals that has found its way onto the street. In the '90s, a cat anesthetic called ketamine became a popular date rape drug. In one case, Hilsenroth said, a dealer using a stolen DEA license number for a veterinarian in Africa managed to order thousands of viles of the drug and sell it in New York City.
Small animal hospitals have also been burglarized for their drugs over the years, and now they are required to keep animal medicine in a locked safe. "People have been looking for all different ways to get this stuff," Hilsenroth said.
It's not clear where the carfentanil leading to overdoses is coming from: whether it's stolen from a legitimate source, imported from abroad, or cooked up by someone in a kitchen or laboratory.
What we do know is that this drug is in a category all its own. "What is the world coming to?" Hilsenroth wondered.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.