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Super-strength synthetic opioids causing UK inmate deaths

Recent reports have detailed how unusually strong synthetic opioids have caused the deaths of several prison inmates. Seemingly, prisons are not equipped to handle the influx of these lethal substances, which are reportedly much stronger than heroin.

Known as nitazenes, the drugs made headlines at the end of 2023 as authorities directly linked multiple deaths to them. Evidence of the presence of these synthetic opioids in the UK goes back to 2021, when an 18-year-old received treatment for a non-fatal overdose.

The prevalence of nitazenes spiked in tandem with the Taliban’s clampdown on opium production and distribution, which choked the availability of heroin. Drug producers and traffickers peddle these potent synthetic opioids as an alternative.

As expected, these super-strength synthetic opioids filtered into the prison network, aggravating already problematic drug misuse and dependency situations. Drug treatment services warned that the market surge in nitazenes may trigger a ‘second wave’ of UK drug deaths, which are already at alarming levels.

Nitazene overdose fatalities in prisons

In 2022, 15 inmates in England and Wales died of unintentional isotonitazene overdoses. This substance is reportedly 250 times stronger than heroin.

These were the first confirmed prison deaths associated with nitazenes. Experts believe that this number will spike as the classification and death certificates of several other drug deaths come in.

Such incidents stress the need for efficient drug testing in prisons. It further highlights the importance of specifically testing for these nitazenes if their impact and presence in UK prisons are to be determined.

 Government interventions regarding these super-strength synthetic opioids

In the UK, drugs fall into one of three categories depending on their potency and the dangers they hold. These are:

  • Class A: Include illicit substances such as heroin, cocaine and ecstasy.
  • Class B: Include cannabis, ketamine and certain amphetamines.
  • Class C: Include anabolic steroids and some tranquilisers.

Following recommendations by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the UK government added 11 synthetic opioids to its ban list in February 2023. Accordingly, the government categorised 10 additional nitazenes and brorphines as Class A substances.

As these psychoactive substances are more potent than fentanyl, anyone possessing or trafficking them will face a life-long prison sentence, an unlimited fine, or both. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs found that isotonitazene caused at least 24 deaths in the UK in 2021.

According to National Crime Agency data, 65 people died as a result of nitazene overdoses in the latter part of 2023. Many criticise the government, saying that these steps are not enough to stem the nitazene tide.

Prisons are understaffed and healthcare provision in these facilities buckle under escalating pressures. As such, it is close to impossible to control the inflow of these drugs.

It is a priority to identify the supply chains and pinpoint how nitazenes make it onto the streets and into prisons. Diligent and focused drug testing sheds light on usage and overdose patterns, which, in turn, informs preventive measures. Authorities and drug treatment services must work in unison to achieve this.

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