Picture credit: Joe Lamberti for The Washington Post via Getty Images
Artillery Row

The dark threat of nitazenes

New opioids could pose a dramatic risk to British streets

Norfolk was once referred to as “the hernia on the end of England” by the acerbic journalist A.A. Gill. To be fair to the late restaurant critic, he was most likely referring to how remote it was. The low-lying, primarily rural county lacks a motorway and has few transportation networks — train stations are few and far between. As such, it’s really on the road to nowhere. The kind of place you happen to be in, as opposed to one you intend to visit.

Due to the bizarre, rustic charm of its residents, it has inspired the term “Normal for Norfolk.” The self-deprecating remark is used to describe the locals’ perceived status as strange, solitary people — purportedly the offspring of extensive inbreeding. Imagine the Appalachian states of Kentucky and Alabama only wetter and colder, with a greater chance of running into Stephen Fry.

In this county, eccentric characters are not the only things that are considered normal. In eastern England, Norwich had the highest rate of heroin-related deaths in 2019. In the same year, it ranked second nationally in terms of drug-related fatalities, only surpassed by Blackpool. The most recent statistics show that there were 83 drug-related deaths in the county in 2022, the highest number ever recorded and a 37 percent increase over the year before. Of all the cities in the east of England, Norwich now has the highest number of drug-related deaths. 

This sleepy city is not an anomaly. The overall picture is the same across the nation. In England and Wales in 2022, drug poisoning was the cause of 4,907 deaths, the highest number since records began in 1993 and the tenth consecutive year of increase. But now that nitazenes, new recreational drugs, have been developed, that number is potentially going to soar. The powerful synthetic opioids — which could be as much as thirty times more potent than fentanyl — have started to show up on British streets.

In 2022, the Taliban outlawed the cultivation of opium. As a result, there was a significant restriction on the worldwide supply of heroin. A new market for synthetic opioids opened up. Dealers began cutting the drug with this new synthetic opioid in an attempt to increase profits. Nitazenes offer several unique advantages over traditional narcotics for manufacturers. Unlike those of cocaine and heroin, their main ingredient can be purchased directly from the manufacturer online and does not need to be sourced from coca leaves or opium poppies. The chemicals are primarily created in laboratories in China. Produced at low cost and with relative ease, it’s almost the perfect business model — if it were not killing off its customer base.

Because of its extreme potency and users’ ignorance of what they are taking, these drugs carries a very high risk of accidental overdose. Post-mortem toxicology results indicate the presence of nitazenes. Based on data from the National Crime Agency, the drugs have been linked to over 100 deaths since the summer. 

Dublin is one city having a serious problem with these drugs. Within a span of 36 hours in November last year, the city recorded 40 overdoses, two of which were fatal. It was later confirmed that a recent batch of heroin had been spiked with nitazenes. During the second half of 2023, nine deaths in the east of England  were connected to nitazenes. Although that might not seem very high, Scotland — the drug death capital of Europe — recorded the same number.

The county’s substance abuse treatment centres are becoming increasingly concerned about their potency. According to Jack Cross, a coordinator at Change Grow Live, Norfolk’s “behaviour change service”, “It’s [Nitazene] our main cause for concern with the changing drug market,” he told the BBC. Mr. Cross predicted that there would be a “lot more overdoses” if users switched to stronger drugs. 

The British government has reclassified fifteen new synthetic opioids as Class A, meaning those found in possession of or supplying the narcotics face harsher penalties, in an effort to slow the spread of nitazenes. Meanwhile, 150,000 Nitazene tablets were discovered during a series of high-profile raids in North London last year, leading to the largest-ever seizure of synthetic opioids in British history and the arrest of 11 people.

To fund an addiction, users often resort to stealing. According to data from the British Retail Consortium, shoplifting cost British retailers almost £2 billion last year. Data indicates that there were 5.6 million theft incidents reported in U.K. stores in 2023. Of these, seventy percent of shoplifters have drug addiction as their motivating force.

It will be incredibly difficult to stay one step ahead of the manufacturers

While dealers should receive longer prison sentences, addicts should be sent to a drug treatment facility. The Centre for Social Justice, a conservative think tank, supports this policy. Their Second Chance programme supports residential rehabilitation for the 10,000 most prolific drug-dependent shoplifters in the country. 

It will be incredibly difficult to stay one step ahead of the manufacturers. The market is changing, and these drugs “are very, very new to us,” as Cross puts it. It only takes minor alterations to a chemical formula to get around the law — a few extra molecules make it legal. This is what happened with mephedrone. The synthetic stimulants 4-methylethcathinone and N-ethylbuphedrone emerged as cathinone derivatives when they were banned in the United Kingdom in 2010.

If we don’t act now, we run the risk of importing an American-style fentanyl crisis that kills over 70,000 Americans annually. To prevent a public health emergency, we need to make naloxone and other opioid-antagonist drugs more widely available. We also need to develop drug testing tools to ensure the safety of individuals who do use illegal drugs. 

Norfolk is a beautiful place. Magnificent flint-covered villages and rickety timber windmills dot the vast, open countryside. With almost 90 miles of pristine coastline, it’s the perfect place to go bird watching. I even know of a cracking owl sanctuary. For this Nelson county resident, normal means seeing a drunken man stumble up the street while dressed as Santa, believing that by being “inconspicuous” he would avoid the police. When they arrived, I watched him hide in a wheelie bin. I’ll take this version of normalcy over an increasing death toll any day.

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