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Minnesota moves towards banning dangerous synthetic opioids

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The Minnesota Board of Pharmacy plans to add synthetic opioids tied to recent overdose deaths across the country to the list of controlled substances in the state. 

The synthetic opioids called U-47700 and W-18 were developed by pharmaceutical companies as research chemicals. Although they were never distributed for humans, the formulas for the drugs were published in connection with medical studies. 

These opioids are much more potent than morphine, said Cody Wiberg, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy. For people who are used to using heroin or prescription painkillers, the very strong drugs can increase the likelihood of accidental overdose. 

These synthetic opioids are strong enough that they have also shown some resistance to the medication called naloxone, which is routinely used to reverse opioid overdoses.

Supplies of the drugs appear to be trafficked into the country from clandestine labs in Mexico, said U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Kent Bailey. But they also appear to be coming out of laboratories in China and India and then sold either covertly or openly through the internet. 

So far this year, the Center for Forensic Science Research and Education has traced the drugs to 60 overdose death investigations across the country, including two investigations in Minnesota. 

States like Ohio, Wyoming and Georgia have already taken steps to ban the substances. Minnesota Board of Pharmacy staff will likely start the rule-making necessary to ban the opioids in the next few weeks, Wiberg said. That process includes not only demonstrating that the drugs could be abused, but that they have hurt people. It is expected to take less than two months. 

Although there are rumors online that these drugs are legal, that's actually not the case, Bailey said.

"They're trying to operate in the grey area, but technically it is illegal, it's covered by the analogue act that was passed in 1986, so it's been on the books for a long time," Bailey said. "Though the individual drug isn't a specifically scheduled illegal drug, if it's pharmacologically similar to a scheduled illegal drug, it's just as illegal under the analogue act."