KALAAMZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Michigan’s leading health agency has issued a warning about the return of a synthetic opioid analgesic that vanished from the illicit drug scene 40 years ago.

“Following nearly four decades of obscurity, a fentanyl analog never intended for human use is once again appearing in the illicit drug market in the United States,” wrote a representative from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in a recently released report. “Para-fluorofentanyl (pFF) is an illicit synthetic opioid that was classified as a Schedule 1 drug in 1986.”

According to the MDHHS bulletin, an early drug surveillance program known as STORM has reported a “sharp increase” in fatal overdose victims testing positive for pFF in Michigan.

STORM, which stands for Swift Toxicology of Overdose-Related Mortalities, is based out of the Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine in Kalamazoo.

“We’ve been testing for pFF since 2016, and we didn’t get our first positive test results back until October 2019,” explained Dr. Prentiss Jones, head of the STORM program.

MDHHS, in its “emerging trends” bulletin, noted that as of October 2022, STORM had identified pFF in 284 fatal overdoses.

Forty Michigan counties, including 11 on the state’s west side, participate in STORM by submitting blood samples from overdoses for quick turn-around toxicology testing.

The lab at WMed produces toxicology results in 24 to 72 hours, giving law enforcement, hospitals and health agencies early warning of emerging trends, like the return of para-flourofentanyl.

“In about 1980 is when (pFF) first appeared on the illicit market here in the United States,” explained Jones. “It was really only in fashion for just a few months, maybe a year at the most. Then, for four decades, it just disappeared.”

Jones, noting that pFF was first developed during medical research in the 1960s, says there’s little known about the potency of the fentanyl analog because there’s been little research into its effect on humans.

“There is a potential to cause greater harm (than regular fentanyl),” said Jones. “(But) we don’t know that for a fact because you can’t make the jump from animal to man.”  

Jones told News 8 pFF has shown up in various concentrations in fentanyl, amphetamines, methamphetamines and cocaine.

MDHHS reported pFF has also been found in heroin packets and counterfeit pills.

The state health agency said the synthetic fentanyl analgesic has been tied to multiple overdose deaths across several U.S. states.

“The potency of pFF can vary between different drug supplies due to the nature of the unregulated, clandestine chemical manufacturing process,” wrote MDHHS. “This narrows the safety threshold and misleads users, placing them at increased risk of opioid toxicity.”

The state reported that, out of all pFF-positive overdose victims, deaths occurred in 23 Michigan counties. The most happened in Genesee County, which had 60 fatalities, while Ingham County reported 52 and Muskegon County reported 29.

Those three counties comprised 50% of the pFF-positive deaths.

According to MDHHS, of the pFF positive decedents:

  • 32% were female, and 65% were male
  • 20% were Black/African American, and 77% were white
  • 57% were between ages 30 and 49

The state health department urged health providers to raise awareness of pFF’s presence, educate people on overdose symptoms and the use of the overdose-reversal drug Naloxone, distribute Naloxone and promote harm reduction messages.

Stephen VerDow, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Grand Rapids office, said Mexican cartels are creating pFF in clandestine labs, always looking for ways to increase potency and hook more consumers.

“The message that needs to be known is these are more dangerous drugs being put out on the street,” said VerDow. “The slogan (the DEA) has had is that ‘one pill can kill,’ and that’s not an empty deterrent. Truly one pill could kill.”