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Stark warning over spread of synthetic drugs 20x stronger than heroin

Super-strength drugs produced in illicit labs in Eastern Europe and the Far East are set to spread throughout Greater Manchester, a doctor has warned.

More than 100 deaths in the UK have been linked to synthetic opioids called nitazenes since last summer, according to the National Crime Agency (NCA).

However, Dr Mark Pucci believes the numbers are a significant underestimate.

The drugs are up to 20 times stronger than heroin and fentanyl, which have claimed thousands of lives in the United States.

The NCA believes the drugs are produced in illegal labs in China and are entering the UK through the Royal Mail and other parcel operators.

Figures reveal five users suffered overdoses in Greater Manchester over the lasts six months. And last week, the government acted to combat the scourge of such drugs by introducing legislation to make 14 nitazenes Class A drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

“Placing these toxic drugs under the strictest controls sends a clear message that the consequences for peddling them will be severe,” said Home Secretary James Cleverly.

However, many experts believe the government has been too slow to act.

Tracking overdose data can show where the drugs have spread and predict and prevent deaths. Currently, there is no national system. 

Overdose figures are gathered by the government from local services and are based on tests of seized drugs and paraphernalia or samples from drug users.

Dr Mark Pucci, a consultant in clinical toxicology, said: “I believe there are very few NHS labs around the country that are set up to test for nitazenes. 

“I do believe England is behind the curve on this matter and is now playing catch up. 

“The data collection method they are using in terms of testing drug paraphernalia and so on is only ever going to be the tip of the iceberg.”

One reason thought to be behind the emergence of these new drugs is the ban on harvesting opium poppies in Afghanistan.

The NCA says at this stage there is not a heroin shortage in the UK as there remain significant reserves.

A spokesman said the purity of street-level heroin had declined in the last year as part of a long-term trend.

The agency has worked with police across the UK and internationally to target key offenders including those selling on dark web markets.

In January, an inquest in Warrington heard how Will Melbourne, 19, had mistakenly taken metonitazene, a strong synthetic opioid he bought on the dark web.

But his family had to wait three years for his inquest, and say they then had to follow a digital “trail of breadcrumbs” to find out how he died.

His parents said they only discovered what drug their son had taken before he died after investigating his death with one of his friends.

They say a vital piece of evidence – the packet of blue pills found next to Will’s body – was not tested until they raised it with the coroner’s court a year after his 2020 death.

A government spokesman said: “We are highly alert to the threat from synthetic drugs and have established a cross-government taskforce to co-ordinate our response to the risk from synthetic opioids, including nitazenes, to the UK. 

“Our drug strategy is focused on tackling the supply of illicit drugs through relentless policing action as well as building a world-class system of treatment and recovery to turn people’s lives around and prevent crime.

 “We have a longstanding surveillance system in place to collect information on the nature and location of novel drug use, drug markets and reports alerting us to harms and work is ongoing to improve these systems.”

NCA deputy director, Charles Yates, said: “The UK is a destination for nitazenes manufactured in China but the UK is not always a final destination. 

“We have evidenced nitazenes being trafficked from the UK overseas to New Zealand, Australia and the US as well as the UK using the Fast Parcel and Post and the UK Royal Mail. 

“The NCA understands there is no indication that the nitazenes themselves are being manufactured in the UK and we believe that they originate from China. While the investigation continues, it is possible nitazene pills that come into the UK are being adulterated by a cutting agent and then repackaged and sold. Since June 2023, we have seen an increase in the prevalence of synthetic opioids/nitazenes in the UK. 

“However, based on forensic analysis, the vast majority of heroin seized has not been fortified with nitazenes and continues to feature typical adulterants. 

“The NCA continues to monitor the availability of heroin throughout the supply chain. At this time there are no indications that there is a shortage of heroin in the UK. Poppy and opium production has been very high in Afghanistan for decades prior to the Taliban ban and we judge that there remains significant reserves of heroin. 

“There is no direct link between the Taliban ban on poppy production and the rise of synthetic opioid use in the UK at this time. This is a fluid situation which remains under constant review. Law enforcement, the Home Office, public health services and forensic services are proactively monitoring to identify any sudden rise or spike in drug-related deaths, in order to act quickly to reduce that threat.”

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