Gray Death: Why People Use Drugs They Know Will Kill Them

Gray Death: Why People Use Drugs They Know Will Kill Them

In what is perhaps the most frightening of all drug combinations to date, Gray Death has emerged as a lethally potent combination of opioids that includes heroin, fentanyl, carfentanil (which can tranquilize a 2,000-pound elephant), and the designer drug U-47700 (also known as “pink” or “U4”). It looks like a cement-colored rock—hence the name—and has been responsible for overdoses and deaths from Ohio to Alabama to California.

Users either inject or snort the drug, and the effects can be almost immediate. Further increasing its danger is the fact that some of the drugs in Gray Death, when handled without gloves, can get into the bloodstream and cause harm that way, often without the person realizing what they’ve touched.

Scientists are puzzled why the drug is gray, however, since none of the individual substances they’ve identified in Gray Death should be that color. This suggests that there may be other drugs of such low concentration that they can’t be identified.

Basically, “you can throw anything in a baggie and call it [Gray Death],” Donna Iula, director of forensic chemistry at a biotechnology company, says. “It’s going to constantly vary, and it’s going to keep the chemists and the medical examiners on their toes.” And accounts from the cities where Gray Death overdoses have occurred cite that just one dose can kill you.

Part of the reason for its creation, investigators speculate, is that drug dealers are continually trying to stay ahead of new laws regulating the sale of various opioids. If they can tweak the formula a little, they can skate just under the law and distribute their drug, often for as little as $10 or $20 on the street.

What may be most baffling, however, is why—given its known lethality—people are lining up to take it. Sometimes even after someone they know has died from it.

Perhaps it reflects the self-destructive nature often seen in those with addictions. Or the desire to achieve the “ultimate” high, despite significant risks. Or any number of other factors, but with Gray Death, what is certain is that they all lead down a sinister path.

For those of us who work every day to help those suffering with addictions, seeking to gain a deeper understanding of the psychology and motivation behind taking a drug they know will kill them—“death” is in the name—has never been more important.

Teasing apart and beginning to resolve the various issues underlying a person’s desire to self-destruct, seek ever-increasing highs, or numb out from unbearably difficult emotions (no matter the cost) not only helps them function better in everyday life, but may truly save their lives now that drugs like Gray Death exist.


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