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Authorities investigating super-strength street drugs as fatal overdoses spike

In early October 2023, a coroner’s report linked super-strength street drugs to multiple overdoses and related deaths in Northern Ireland. These synthetic opioids are a combination of nitazenes, a painkiller so potent that it was never approved for medical purposes, and xylazine, a sedative.


In July, the Public Health Agency (PHA) issued an alert that the drug may have surfaced in Belfast. To date, the police and other relevant authorities believe that nitazenes caused the death of six people in Northern Ireland.


Authorities are also examining another 30 deaths in the West Midlands, believing that they are tied to nitazenes. Reports indicate that London police seized a batch of these drugs in the capital early in October 2023.


The Met indicated that forensic tests confirmed that this stockpile contained nitazenes. Legal and health officials think that dealers cut the nitazene-xylazine combination into drugs and sell it as heroin, with users being none the wiser.


Arrival of nitazenes on UK shores


Nitazenes are not a newcomer to US streets and constitute a large part of that country’s opioid crisis. Experts estimate that it is one of the main contributors to US drug deaths in the under-50s age group.


Last year, Afghanistan’s reigning Taliban imposed a ban on poppy farming, cutting into the global drug supply. This caused drug traffickers to explore alternate sources and means to augment supplies, leading to the distribution of the lethal substance in UK streets.


What are nitazenes?


As mentioned, nitazenes are analgesics that never saw the light in medical circles. The drug is 500 times stronger than morphine, 100 times stronger than traditional heroin, and is believed to be more toxic than fentanyl.


Cut and spliced into drugs such as heroin, cocaine and tablets, these synthetic opioids have been around since 2019. Users inject, inhale or swallow them and, when mixed with other narcotics and alcohol, they are highly hazardous.


The PHA in Northern Ireland stated that they vary in potency and, if they do not kill a person, can still have serious adverse effects on the human body. In some cases, even a small amount can be fatal.


Tackling the emerging nitazene crisis


Matrix Diagnostics, a drug and alcohol testing specialist, strongly recommends that a viable strategy be put in place to address this specific drug threat. To save lives in the short and long term, authorities must explore resources and expertise to help in this fight.


Drug testing provides tangible results about drug contents, which, in turn, informs toxicity and lethal levels. Extensive drug testing is the first line of defence and should be carried out at:


  • Events
  • Roadblocks
  • Spot police checks
  • Holding cells in police stations
  • Supervised drug-use sites


A rapid drug test, delivering results within five minutes, is the answer for high-traffic or high-paced locations such as events or roadblocks. In instances where suspects are held, metro police services can employ back-to-lab collection kits. Prompt action will stymie the escalation, spread and use of nitazenes.

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