November 29, 2023 - 7:00am

The UK Government just announced that 15 types of synthetic opioids will now be categorised as Class A. The aim is to tackle the growing danger of accidental overdose by threatening suppliers with life imprisonment.

The Government announcement states that the prevalence of these synthetic opioids is limited across the UK, but this is not necessarily true. Nitazene, a deadly synthetic opioid with similar properties to fentanyl, has recently appeared in London, Bristol, Dublin, and Belfast. Several raids last week saw the UK’s largest-ever synthetic opioid seizure, 150,000 pills of which were Nitazene, resulting in 11 arrests.

Nitazene was initially developed in the Fifties for pharmaceutical purposes. After being scrapped for health risks, it has found its way onto the growing market for illicit synthetic drugs and is creating huge risks for users. It is dangerous due to its potency and the lack of awareness users have that they’re taking the drug, despite it being hundreds of times stronger than heroin and similar to or stronger than fentanyl, creating the potential for accidental overdoses.

Dublin in particular has been having serious problems. In the last three weeks, the city has had 59 drug overdoses, two of which were fatal, and there is growing evidence of the association with a Nitazene-type substance. As a result, drug treatment agencies put up information posters across the city warning users to be careful. In order to ensure their safety, drug harm reduction agencies call for continuous testing of drugs and for individuals to carry naloxone, a medication used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

Nitazene’s prevalence is likely the result of a contracting illicit heroin supply. The successful ban on opium cultivation by the Taliban in 2022, after taking power in Afghanistan, has disrupted the international drug market, leading to a boom in synthetic opioids. Prior to the ban, Afghanistan’s opium supplied 95% of the UK’s illicit market, but now that percentage is likely much lower. Although many believed the ban may lead to the rise of fentanyl in the UK and European markets, it appears that Nitazene is actually the most prominent synthetic opioid in the UK.

This is also part of a wider trend. Synthetic drugs can be produced cheaply and easily in clandestine labs such as the one raided in Waltham Forest last week. The cheapness of these synthetic alternatives therefore makes them an attractive prospect to both buyers and suppliers. Nitazene may be new — but it is spreading at a dangerously fast pace.

Fin Carter runs Narcosis, an outlet covering drug-related news and violence.