Synthetic opioids predicted to fuel drugs death crisis

Drug-related deaths are expected to rise dramatically following the detection of a lethal synthetic opioid in the UK.

Confirmation by the National Crime Agency that 54 deaths related to nitazenes have occurred in the past six months has led public health experts to warn it may be just “the tip of the iceberg”.

The synthetic opioids are said to be so dangerous that even a dose the size of a “grain of sand” of some nitazene compounds can kill.

Hidden risk

In a recent article in The Lancet, members of the Faculty of Public Health raised concerns about the emergence of nitazenes on the UK drugs market.

Highlighting the prospect of the man-made drug fuelling a wave of deaths by poisoning, the authors said that some nitazenes “are hundreds of times more potent than heroin”.

“In the UK, nitazenes have been detected in substances sold as other opioids, benzodiazepines, and cannabis products. This means many consumers are using nitazenes inadvertently, unaware of the risks they face.”

Addressing a written question on the issue, Police Minister Chris Philp said there is “a robust multi-agency response to detections of nitazenes, ensuring lines of enquiry are prioritised and vigorously pursued to stem any supply of illicit synthetic opioids to and within the UK”.


According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), there were 4,907 drug-related deaths in 2022 – the highest number since records began in 1993, and a 1 per cent increase on the 2021 figure.

Approximately five in ten deaths were linked to opioids such as heroin and methadone.

For the year ending March 2023, the ONS said that an estimated 9.5% of 16 to 59-year-olds in England and Wales “reported using a drug”.

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