Nine people have died in Scotland after taking a new opioid that is “considerably” stronger than heroin or fentanyl.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) has issued a stark warning following a rise in synthetic opioids named nitazenes.
The NCA said nitazenes are being used to fortify heroin and that users may be unaware that the substance they are taking has been altered.
Nitazenes were initially invented in the 1950s for pharmaceutical research and have no approved medicinal use.
The NCA confirmed that between June 1 and December 7, there have been 54 forensically linked drug related deaths to nitazenes in the UK – nine of which were in Scotland.
The organisation added that instances of nitazenes in their drugs samples have increased from eight in 2021 and 30 in 2022, to 50 in 2023 up to the beginning of October.
It comes after an estimated 900 suspected drug deaths between January and September 2023, according to official statistics.
A spokesperson for the NCA said the agency is “proactively monitoring” the threat to identify any sudden rise or spike in drug related deaths, in order to act quickly.
“The NCA, working closely with policing, Border Force and other international partners is ensuring that all lines of enquiry are prioritised and vigorously pursued to stem any supply of nitazenes to and within the UK,” they said.
“This based on the NCA’s and partners in health and policing’s previous experience in tackling a rise of isotonitazene in 2021, which caused 24 deaths, and a spike of fentanyl related deaths in 2017.”
According to NCA, nitazenes pose a “considerable risk” to people as they can be much stronger than other opiate substances like heroin and fentanyl.
However, the opioid antidote naloxone still works to prevent overdose death.
Police Scotland confirmed they were “closely monitoring” the drug type and will act “proportionately” to any increase in the circulation of new or existing drugs.
Chief inspector Anton Stephenson said: “Emerging drug trends are constantly monitored and we will act proportionately to any increase in the prevalence or circulation of new or existing drug types.
“Synthetic opioids, known as nitzenes are a drug type we are aware of and which we are closely monitoring.
“We will continue to share information with partners in order to keep people safe.
“We work closely with partners including PHS, Scottish Government, alcohol and drug partnerships and drug support services to raise awareness on the harms caused by substance use, as well as current or emerging trends which can detrimentally impact on these harms.
“We continue to support the Scottish Government drugs strategy and through partnership working, and with the support of local communities, we aim to make Scotland a safer place.”
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