Powerful new synthetic drugs killing San Diegans

SAN DIEGO — New synthetic drugs that either killed San Diegans or contributed to their deaths have been turning up in toxicology screenings conducted by the county Medical Examiner’s Office over the past year, county officials said Friday.

None of the six substances were seen before in autopsies in the San Diego region and only three had appeared in death cases in the U.S., according to the county.

“The last year has been quite surprising — picking up a rash of unusual drugs, new compounds,” said Dr. Iain McIntyre, the manager of the county’s forensic toxicology laboratory. “There are a lot of novel drug compounds being used in San Diego County and these synthetic drugs have dubious purity.”

Two of the new drugs are stimulants like “bath salts,” which have been common in recent years, while two others are psychedelic hallucinogen compounds — one similar to PCP.

Two more are opioids, similar to heroin. McIntyre said one of those — acetylfentanyl — is his biggest worry because it can be sold in place of heroin and has led to clusters of deaths in other areas of the country.

It was listed as the cause of death for a 24-year-old man in November. The doctor said he suspects the victim purchased the drug locally, but it and other designer drugs are also available online.

“The problem is when you buy these drugs on the Internet, you don’t know exactly what you’re getting, you don’t know if it’s mixed with something that is more toxic than you think you’re taking, and you don’t know the purity of it,” McIntyre said.

“So, the drug you buy today on the Internet might be stronger than the one you bought last month,” he said. “And you get a toxic, fatal reaction to it. The Internet is a game changer with these synthetic, modern abused drugs.”

McIntyre said he suspects local hospital emergency room workers have already seen the substance but may not have known it, because symptoms resemble those appearing in heroin overdoses. The treatment is also similar, but acetylfentanyl requires much more antidote as part of treatment because of its increased potency.

William Perno, a prevention specialist with the Institute for Public Strategies and a retired San Diego County Sheriff’s deputy, said synthetic drug manufacturers frequently alter drug compounds to stay one step ahead of authorities who ban specific synthetic drug formulas.

A manufacturer knows that a product may be out in the market for six months to a year before it’s flagged as a dangerous drug, so they are already working on their next formula, he said.

“This is chemical Russian roulette,” Perno said. “The effects can be death or serious injury after one-time use.”

Local drug dealers can be fooled by their drug sources as well. Perno said one North County man, who was a known ecstasy dealer, actually selling bath salts or methylone, to his own surprise.