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How the UK is facing an ‘epidemic of death’ over lethal new drug spreading across the country

Overdoses from a lethal new synthetic opioid are on the rise across the United Kingdom and Ireland and local charities say they are preparing for an ‘epidemic of death’.

Nitazenes –  a synthetic opioid more than fifty times stronger than heroin – has infiltrated illicit drug supplies and are linked to hundreds of deaths.

First detected in white powder sampled from a Wakefield taxi in April 2021, nitazenes have since been detected in cannabis, crack cocaine, heroin and even vapes.

They are a new type of super-strength opioid that can be almost tens and many hundreds time more potent than morphine, according to The Pharmaceutical Journal.

This week, the UK announced a further ban on synthetic opioids, including nitazenes, in a bid to tackle the issue.

But Ester Kincová, the Public Affairs and Policy Manager at Transform Drug Policy Foundation, says it won’t fix the problem.

She told ‘The government needs to support harm reduction measures and no longer criminalize people who use drugs or who have them in possession for personal use. 

Close-up on the floor of the syringe with the drug. In the background, a young drug addict; Shutterstock ID 162691106; purchase_order: -; job: -; client: -; other: -
Nitazenes have been detected in heroin, crack cocaine and more (Picture: Shutterstock)

‘Criminalizing people continues their cycle of harm, but it also discourages people from engaging in services.’

A public health approach is ‘necessary’ to tackle the issue of synthetic opioids, she said.

‘If this is not treated as essential, then we may be seeing something that is far more difficult to deal with down the line.

‘Although we are concerned that there could be a higher increase in drug related deaths to synthetic opioids, we also believe that there is still time to bring in significant amounts of measures with adequate funding and treat it as a public health emergency to prevent the worst from happening,’ she told

One of the issues with nitazenes is that they’re very poorly monitored, she said, and a lethal dose of the drug is so small you can’t see it with a naked eye – meaning many are unaware their drugs have been laced.

Mick Fleming is a former addict who runs charity Church on the Street to help those facing homelessness, addiction and poverty.

Those who use heroin have overdosed on nitazenes put in their supply (Picture: AP)
Those who use heroin have overdosed on nitazenes put in their supply (Picture: AP)

Speaking of the increasing nitazene epidemic, he told ‘We’ve seen more overdoses and deaths… but the kind of stigma around drug addicts is almost like “Just let them die.”’

In recent months, Mr Fleming said he’s seen more ‘hardocre’ drug users dying of overdose – which is alarming, he says, because those drug users are very familiar with just how much they need to take to get high.

‘I’ve seen the beginnings of an epidemic around Birmingham, Nottingham, and other UK cities as we see more and more deaths, more and more overdoses. We need to promote harm reduction.’

Part of the harm reduction is Naloxone – a medication which is readily available across the UK, for free, that can immediately reverse opioid overdoses.

Despite its easy use and availability, many remain unaware of the life saving drug. 

Mr Fleming pointed out that no police force in England are required to carry Naloxone: ‘Police are more likely to be on the scene before an ambulance comes, and just one injection or one sniff of the nose and someone’s saved.’

In 2023, however, Scotland was the first to introduce Naloxone as part of the standard issue kit for officers and required training for use of the life-saving treatment.

Opioid use and overdoses have been on the rise for more than a decade across the UK – in 2022, 46% of the 2,261 drug poisoning deaths involved an opiate. 

And as heroin supplies dwindle across the world due to the lack of poppy harvest in opium-producing countries like Afghanistan, drug dealers are cutting their supply to make it more potent while risking lives.

In a statement issued earlier this week, the Home Office said fifteen new synthetic opioids – fourteen of which are nitazenes – are now banned as Class A drugs.

The maximum penalty for Class A drugs is up to seven years in prison or an unlimited fine.

And the UK drug market continues to thrive – around 150,000 tablets were seized in November in the UK’s latest ever synthetic opioid haul.

Source: Metro