Deaths in the UK linked to synthetic opioid fentanyl have trebled in the last five years, British Home Secretary Amber Rudd has been warned.
The painkiller, which is said to be up to 100 more potent than morphine, is increasingly being added to street heroin by dealers due to its low cost and easy availability, a deadly trend imported from the US.
According to the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA), traces of fentanyl have been discovered in the bodies of 46 drug users who suffered fatal overdoses so far this year, up from just 10 in 2010.
Fentanyl, which hit the headlines last year after it was revealed the drug contributed to the untimely death of pop singer Prince, is derived from carfentanyl, an elephant tranquilliser that is 10,000 times stronger than morphine.
A report from the UK government’s drugs watchdog said the increase in the number of deaths linked to fentanyl should be a cause for concern, and warrants close monitoring, according to a report from the Times of London.
Speculating over why fentanyl appears to be becoming more prevalent in the UK drug market, Harry Sumnall, a professor of substance use at the Public Health Institute at Liverpool John Moores University, told the Guardian: “Whether it’s so-called user dealers who are buying a local supply, or new actors trying to enter the market but at a much lower level than the established heroin gangs, we don’t really know.”
In a report published last month, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) revealed that fentanyl and other synthetic opioids have been responsible for an increasing number of non-fatal overdoses and deaths in the EU.
The EMCDDA said the substances were a “potentially attractive commodity for organised crime” on account of their potency and the ease with which the raw material required to make tens of thousands of street doses can be transported.
Warning British drug users about the dangers of taking heroin laced with of fentanyl back in April, Tony Saggers, Head of Drugs Threat and Intelligence at the NCA, commented: “Fentanyl can be problematic to identify in post-mortem toxicology, but we have noticed an increase in the drug in forensic testing of street heroin.
“Heroin users need to be aware that the amount of fentanyl in a £10 bag of heroin need only be 1/50th of the total quantity (about 2 milligrams) to be a lethal dose.”
Saggers was speaking after a spike in the number of fatal overdoses linked to heroin contaminated with fentanyl in the north of England.
Days after Saggars spoke, two people died in Hull after taking heroin thought to have been mixed the synthetic opioid.
Public Health England has also warned heroin users about the danger of taking drugs laced with fentanyl, urging them to administer opioid blocker naloxone in the event of an overdose.