Posted on: 30 August, 2023
One of the UK’s leading providers for drug and alcohol support, Cranstoun, has today launched a report containing 8 key recommendations on how to address the escalating drug crisis. The report is in response to emerging accounts of nitazenes – a potent, synthetic opioid similar to fentanyl – contaminating the UK’s heroin supply.
The report has been backed by 35 Parliamentarians, a former Prime Minister of New Zealand, and leading organisations and academics across the political spectrum.
It is believed that the Taliban’s policy on reducing the opium harvest could be causing this development. The clampdown has created a gap in the market here in the UK, with Afghanistan previously supply 95% of supply into the country. Reports of super-strength synthetic drugs are leading to overdoses and more deaths on the streets.
The opioids which have most commonly been found are being attributed to rising levels of overdose and drug related deaths in recent weeks are called nitazenes and fentanyl.
The charity has called the situation a “rapidly developing public health emergency, which could mirror the crisis in North America” where the situation is at endemic levels.
Nitazenes are synthetic opioids which can be between 30 – 500 times more potent than the heroin that the UK is used to seeing and pose a serious risk of overdose, even in very small quantities. The UK is the drug death capital of Europe, with drug related deaths rising consecutively over the past nine years. In 2021, 4,859 deaths were recorded in England and Wales.
Synthetic opioids are widespread in other parts of the world, with the fentanyl crisis still gripping North America, with over 70,000 people dying from synthetic opioids in 2022 alone. This is one of the first major outbreaks of these types of drugs entering the mainstream UK drug market. It is estimated that 95% of the UK’s heroin supply comes from Afghanistan.
The report outlines an 8 point plan, rooted in the principles of harm reduction, which includes the formal roll out of Drug Testing, the implementation of Overdose Prevention Centres and a concerted effort to increase the number of people in drug treatment.
Synthetic Opioids are the biggest killer of people under the age of 50 in the United States, with over 70,000 dying from the drugs in 2022, and a public health emergency has been called. Many of the proposals put forward by Cranstoun are reflective of strategies used to address the crisis in the US.
Megan Jones, Director at Cranstoun said: “We are seeing substances mis-sold as heroin or heroin and other drugs mixed with high strength synthetic opioids right across the country.
“These drugs can be up to 500 times stronger than the drugs we are used to seeing here and pose a serious risk to life.
“Our report calls on the UK Government to get ahead of the curve on this rapidly escalating public health emergency. The window of opportunity to reduce deaths and suffering, prevent nitazenes becoming ubiquitous in the drug supply, and prevent an unmanageable crisis for emergency responders is closing.
“Without immediate action encompassing a Whole System approach, we will be wholly unprepared for what lies around the corner. We cannot afford to sleepwalk into a public health emergency.
“It also goes to show the impact of policy changes on the other side of the world is now having right here in the UK and as a provider of support for people who use drugs, we are committed to working in collaboration with government, emergency services, other charities and communities to ensure that we can keep people safe and prevent drug related deaths.
“We are also beginning to see evidence that these nitazenes are being cut into other drugs too and not just heroin. This could mean even greater danger for people who may use drugs such as cocaine, ketamine and other street acquired tablets whose bodies will have a very low tolerance to opioids.”
Dr Steve Brinksman, who has worked as a GP and with people who use drugs for over 30 years provides advice to people on how they can stay safe, reduce their chances of overdose and access treatment and support.
He said: “Being in treatment is one of the most important ways to prevent death from an overdose. Being on opioid substitution such as methadone will reduce the chance of overdose even if people are using other drugs on top. The priority has to be preventing deaths and keeping people safe.
“We issue large amounts of naloxone, the life-saving opioid overdose reversal drug, and advise all people who use drugs or may come into contact with someone who uses opioids to carry it, know how to use it and be prepared to save lives.”
Dr Brinksman also spoke about a new app which has just been launched nationwide to help prevent drug related overdoses and the importance of collaboration and working in partnership across the sector to respond to the issue surrounding synthetic opioids.
He added: “We always recommend to people who do use drugs to try and be with someone whilst they do as in the event of an overdose someone is available to administer naloxone and call an ambulance.
“However, we recognise that it is not always possible which is why we’ve launched BuddyUp to support people who use drugs alone. They can access a trained volunteer who can send an emergency response in the event they become unresponsive and could be in overdose.
“A similar app has been available in Canada for some time and we’ve worked with the team there to launch and design this app right across the UK and Republic of Ireland.”
It isn’t just these ways in which experts in drug services are looking to save lives. The greater emergence of these types of opiates has created fresh calls for the government to introduce overdose prevention centres right across the country. These sites, which operate right across the world are safe spaces for people using drugs to do so safely, and in an environment where an effective response can be made in the event of an overdose.
Meg Jones added: “We fear that now these types of opioids are becoming widely available, that pandora’s box has been opened and these much more potent types of drugs will remain mainstream in the UK’s drug supply.
“Unfortunately, that will mean more people are likely to suffer overdoses and, as we have seen in recent weeks, lose their lives.
“We know from global evidence that overdose prevention centres are a proven, effective method of not only saving lives, but supporting people into treatment and reducing the cost that drugs costs society. The government should act now to implement these sites right across the country to prevent more people dying on our streets.”