Chemist discovers new opioid in DC, alerts first responders using Narcan for overdoses

A chemist in D.C.’s crime lab has discovered a new synthetic opioid being used on the streets of the District. The lab immediately alerted first responders about the possibility the drug could be resistant to the lifesaving antidote Narcan.

As part of her work testing used syringes to surveil the drug supply for new threats, chemist Alexandra Evans discovered the first known sample of Protonitazene in D.C.

“It’s a synthetic opioid. As far as its use, we have only observed it in a syringe, so we know that it’s used intravenously,” she said.

The opioid is not a new compound. Evans said it has appeared in some other cities across the country, but it’s the first time it’s appeared in the District’s drug supply.

“Every few weeks, we’re seeing something that we haven’t seen before … you can definitely see that there’s consistent changes in the drug supply here in the District,” said supervisory chemist Morgan Levitas, of the Public Health Program run within D.C.’s Department of Forensic Sciences.

Immediately after Evans’ finding, DFS alerted its public health partners, including first responders who use Narcan, a treatment used in emergency opioid overdoses.

“It’s important to let them know, ‘Hey, we’re starting to see these different drugs,’ because they might assume, ‘Oh, it’s an opioid. I can use Narcan if I suspect an overdose.’ But as you start to see all these new drugs that are in the drug supply, that might explain why Narcan maybe isn’t helping with a suspected overdose. It also helps keep our first responders safe,” Levitas said.

Each used syringe that the lab tests is anonymous and allows the lab to keep track of what is being circulated in the IV drug supply by testing each syringe against known samples.

“And we’ve been able to detect some really unique trends to D.C., like things that other cities aren’t really seeing,” Levitas said.

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Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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