A NEW breed of drugs 50 times more powerful than fentanyl could cause a “tsunami” of deaths in the UK, experts are warning.
Dubbed Frankenstein drugs, nitazenes — which are man-made to mimic the effects of opioids such as heroin — can be mixed with other drugs to create much stronger, and often fatal, results.
As well as being used in heroin, they are also being found in anxiety medication such as Xanax, that can be easily bought online.
They have already killed 49 people across the UK, including a young entrepreneur and a talented teenage software developer.
In Dublin, 40 heroin addicts overdosed in the space of 36 hours last month after nitazenes made their way into the local drug supply.
And in the same month cops seized the biggest ever haul of nitazenes after a raid on an illegal factory in North London.
They recovered 150,000 tablets along with a pill-pressing machine and £60,000 in cash.
Nitazenes are believed to be mostly shipped in from China — and there are fears they could spark a new war between organised crime gangs.
Drug expert Tony D’Agostino, who trains frontline workers, said: “They are called Frankenstein drugs because they can be mixed with tablets or powder. They don’t have a ‘face’ or any sort of look.
“They can make their way into the heroin supply chain and Xanax-type drugs that are bought online or through social media.
“The bigger worry is if they make their way into the cannabis market because up to 16million Brits take cannabis.”
“These drugs were developed in the late 1950s by a Swiss company that shelved them because they were too potent.”
Nitazenes are surging in popularity among drug dealers because heroin supplies from Afghanistan are expected to dry up within the next six months.
The Taliban there has banned the growing of opium poppies, from which heroin is derived, and this has left British gangs looking for alternatives to sell on the streets.
Expert Tony added: “Now underground chemists are looking for these sorts of drugs as the heroin supply from Afghanistan starts to run out.
“Police are testing for it in drug supplies, but pharmaceutical companies have not yet created urine or swab tests for nitazenes, so they can be hard to detect.
‘Know how to order from the dark web’
“We know some have come in from China, where batches are made in factories. If Chinese gangs move in on the market, it could cause real division with different groups of dealers.”
Nitazenes were found in nine batches of pills and heroin tested by drug service Wedinos last month.
The samples came from all over the UK, including Barnsley, Coventry, Eastbourne, Cardiff, Guisborough in North Yorkshire, Llanelli in Carmarthenshire and Londonderry, Northern Ireland.
At least 30 people died across the West Midlands this summer after a version of nitazene called isotonitazene got into heroin supplies.
The UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs reported isotonitazene was also responsible for 24 deaths in 2021, when man-made opioids started to emerge in Britain.
Another variation called etonitazene — street named pyro — killed Birmingham students Dylan Byfield-Levell, 20, and Jakob Wozniak, 19, as well as budding city businessman Miles Elliott Davis, 27, between October 2021 and January 2022.
The strength of these drugs vary but some are 50 times more potent than fentanyl, so just a tiny amount will go a long way for dealers.
Retired GP Judith Yates
It also took the life of 18-year-old Will Helstrip, a software expert of Dunnington, North Yorks, who bought a Valium-type drug off the dark web to cope with sleeping problems.
Will, who had been bullied for years over his cleft lip, died in May last year after struggling with insomnia.
Mum Ruth said at the time: “Due to his inability to sleep, Will would self-medicate with prescription medicine.
“When you’re a computer genius, you know how to order from the dark web and have something sent out to you in the post.
“We do not know what Will thought he had ordered, but what we do know without a shadow of a doubt was that he would never have known it would be laced with a new, highly dangerous, synthetic drug which is 1,500 times stronger than morphine.
“Will never stood a chance.”
Retired Birmingham GP Judith Yates, who collates drug statistics, said the spate of deaths this summer was the worst the city had seen in the past 15 years.
She added: “There are two separate groups of people at risk from these synthetic opioids.
“The first is heroin users and the second is young people who are buying ‘prescribed’ medications online or while sitting in their bedrooms or wherever.
“They weren’t buying street drugs and thought they were ordering things like benzos [benzodiazepines], and Xanex — with many coming straight from China.
“I’ve spoken to the families of three young people, two aged 21 and one aged 22, who said their loved ones had been medicating for anxiety or difficulties in coping with life.”
Dr Yates also believes that heroin supplies from Afghanistan will run out in the next six months and dealers will start mixing or replacing the drug with nitazenes.
She said: “The strength of these drugs vary but some are 50 times more potent than fentanyl, so just a tiny amount will go a long way for dealers.
“The difficulty is that without a proper pharmaceutical lab you cannot measure it properly and make sure a ‘safe’ dose goes in each bag of heroin.
“The contents of these bags look exactly like heroin.”
There are fears that the rise of synthetic drugs in the UK could see the same kind of carnage that is being wreaked in the US, where fentanyl is now the leading cause of death among young adults.
Cities such as San Francisco are blighted by zombie-like addicts openly shooting up in makeshift pavement camps and shoplifting to fund their habit.
Dr Yates says the Government must move fast to divert a crisis over here.
She is also calling for heroin to be prescribed by doctors and for the use of consumption rooms where addicts can take drugs in an enclosed, safe environment.
Some police forces have issued officers with a drug called naloxone, which can save the lives of users who have overdosed.
‘Not difficult to get drugs into country’
Former undercover cop Neil Wood said: “Everyone is expecting this to get worse and more people will die — there’s no doubt about that.”
Neil, who works with the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, which looks at drug policies, added that with 95 per cent of Britain’s heroin coming from Afghanistan, there are serious fears about what will take its place when supplies run out.
He said: “It seems strange to say that we hoped another country would fill the void caused by banning the cultivation of opium poppies in Afghanistan, but the introduction of replacement synthetic drugs means we will see more deaths across Europe.
“You’d expect to find nitazenes in the heroin market at times, but not in drugs like benzos, so it’s a very worrying trend.
“This is organised crime preparing for the imminent supply drop and trying out dilution of their supplies in heroin with a stronger product.”
He believes that once criminal gangs embrace synthetic drugs, they probably will not go back to heroin.
They are called Frankenstein drugs because they can be mixed with tablets or powder.
Drug expert Tony D’Agostino
He added: “It’s easier to smuggle in smaller amounts of this than larger amounts of heroin.
“Most of the nitazenes are coming from China and there is no real border control. It’s not difficult to get drugs into the country.”
This month the Government made 15 types of synthetic opioids illegal, including those involved in the 49 deaths over the past two years.
Crime and policing minister Chris Philp said: “These new highly dangerous substances have the potential to devastate lives, ruin families and damage communities.
“We must be one step ahead to ensure we are stopping new drugs from plaguing our streets and endangering the lives of vulnerable people.
“Our strategy is to tackle both the illicit supply of drugs, relentlessly pursuing criminal networks, and to build a world-class treatment system to turn people’s lives around and stop the cycle of crime.”
‘Stronger than fantanyl’
- 49 Brits have already died from taking nitazenes
- 40 drug addicts overdosed in 36 hours in Dublin
- 150k tablets were seized in a raid in London last month
- 6 months until supplies of Afghan heroin totally dry up