Synthetic opioids are substances that are synthesized in a laboratory and that act on the same targets in the brain as natural opioids (e.g.,morphine and codeine) to produce analgesic (pain relief) effects. In contrast, natural opioids are naturally occurring substances extracted from the seed pod of certain varieties of poppy plants.
Clandestinely produced synthetic opioids structurally related to the Schedule II opioid analgesic fentanyl were trafficked and abused on the West Coast in the late 1970s and 1980s. In the 1980s, DEA controlled several of these illicitly produced synthetic opioids such as alpha-methylfentanyl, 3-methylthiofentanyl, acetyl-alpha-methylfentanyl, beta-hydroxy-3-methylfentanyl, alpha-methylthiofentanyl, thiofentanyl, beta-hydroxyfentanyl, para-fluorofentanyl, and 3-methylfentanyl.
As of 2013, there has been a re-emergence in the trafficking and abuse of various clandestinely produced synthetic opioids, including several substances related to fentanyl. Some common illicitly produced synthetic opioids that are currently encountered by law enforcement include, but are not limited to, acetyl fentanyl, butyryl fentanyl, beta- hydroxythiofentanyl, furanyl fentanyl, 4-fluoroisobutyryl fentanyl, acryl fentanyl, and U-47700.
Clandestinely produced synthetic opioids have been encountered in powder form and were identified on bottle caps and spoons, detected within glassine bags, on digital scales, and on sifters which demonstrates the abuse of these substances as replacements for heroin or other opioids. These drugs are also encountered as tablets, mimicking pharmaceutical opioid products. Clandestinely produced synthetic opioids are encountered as a single substance in combination with other opioids (fentanyl, heroin, U-47700) or other substances.
Abuse of clandestinely produced synthetic opioids parallels that of heroin and prescription opioid analgesics. Many of these illicitly produced synthetic opioids are more potent than morphine and heroin and thus have the potential to result in a fatal overdose.
Many synthetic opioids are currently controlled under the Controlled Substances Act. The DEA temporarily placed U-47700 and several other substances that are structurally related to fentanyl, such as acetyl fentanyl, butyryl fentanyl, beta-hydroxythiofentanyl, and furanyl fentanyl, in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. In February 2018, the DEA temporarily placed fentanyl-related substances in Schedule I of the CSA. Other synthetic opioid substances may be subject to prosecution under the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act which allows non-controlled substances to be treated as Schedule I substances if certain criteria are met.