Adulterants in Street Drugs Tied to Increased COVID Risk

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The composition of street drugs like heroin and cocaine are changing. According to a new analysis, almost all contain at least one toxic adulterant, and many contain a plethora. Most adulterants have pharmacologic activities and toxicities. Their presence has added impact in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, since some may cause a drastic drop in white blood cells that could leave drug users more vulnerable to infection.

Dr Mark Gold

“It’s remarkable that we just forgot to notice, in the horrendous transition from prescription opioid epidemic to the illicit opioid and psychostimulant epidemics, that we would have to pay special attention to what the medications are in the drugs that the person was exposed to — and for how long,” said Mark S. Gold, MD, a coauthor of the review.

The analysis showed that adulterants include new psychoactive substances, industrial compounds, fungicides, veterinary medications, and various impurities. In addition, other various medications are being found in street drugs, such as antipsychotics, antidepressants, anxiolytics, antihistamines, anthelmintics, anesthetics, anti-inflammatory agents, antipyretics, analgesics, antispasmodics, antiarrhythmics, antimalarials, bronchodilators, decongestants, expectorants, muscle relaxers, natural/synthetic hallucinogens, and sedatives.

Illicit drugs are by nature manufactured without Food and Drug Administration oversight, and it is becoming increasingly common that substances like leftover medicines and other active drugs are added to illicit drug batches to add weight, said Gold, a professor at Washington University, St Louis, Missouri. The study appeared in Current Psychopharmacology.

Effects of Adulterants “Terrifying”

The findings of adulterants and their consequences are concerning, according to Jean Lud Cadet, MD, who was asked to comment on the findings. “The blood dysplasia, the pulmonary problems that some of those adulterants can cause — it’s actually terrifying, to put it bluntly,” said Cadet, who is a senior investigator and chief of the Molecular Neuropsychiatry Research Branch at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Before 2000, street drugs were generally diluted with comparatively benign substances such as caffeine, sugars, or lidocaine. Drugs like phenacetin, levamisole, acetaminophen, and diltiazem began to appear in heroin and cocaine in the late 1990s, and by 2010, more powerful adulterants like fentanyl, ketamine, and quetiapine became common. Adulterants can lead to a range of clinical effects, including renal and liver problems, blood disorders, infections, respiratory depression, and cardiac arrest.

In 2015, the US Department of State partnered with the Colombo Plan, an international organization based in Sri Lanka, to use field spectroscopy to detect toxins directly in cocaine and heroin samples found in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, and South Africa. They found a range of adulterants such as aminopyrine, diltiazem, metamizole, levamisole, and phenacetin.

A similar project with 431 heroin and cocaine samples from Vermont and Kentucky found that 69% of samples had five or more controlled drugs, toxic adulterants, or impurities. About 15% had nine or more, and 95% of samples had at least one toxic adulterant.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, these adulterants take on even greater significance. Individuals with substance use disorders often have other health conditions that can make them more vulnerable to viral infections, and this could be exacerbated by the effects of adulterants on white blood cells or other systems. The pandemic has also had an indirect effect by causing a shortage of street drugs. During production shortages, traffickers might boost potency by adding more cutting agents and adulterants. As a result, COVID-19 and opioid addiction tend to reinforce each other.

“The clinical message would be that our [substance use] patients will contract infectious disease and need to be prioritized for [COVID-19] vaccination,” said Gold.

The findings came as a surprise to Cadet, and that illustrates a need to publicize the presence of adulterants in street drugs.

“If I wasn’t aware of many of these, then the general public is also not going to be aware of them,” Cadet said. “Scientists, including myself, and government agencies need to do a better job [of communicating this issue].”

The study references individuals with substance use disorder, but Cadet cautioned that anyone who uses street drugs, even once or twice, could be a victim of adulterants. “You don’t need to have met criteria for diagnosis in order to suffer the consequences.”

The study had no funding. Gold and Cadet have no relevant financial disclosures.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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