The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drugs Addiction (EMCDDA) has warned that highly-potent synthetic alternatives to heroin are posing a growing health risk for EU member states.
In its annual European Drug Report, the agency notes that while the synthetic opioid market remains relatively small in the EU, the substances are causing increasing harm to the bloc’s drug users, driving a rising number of non-fatal overdoses and deaths.
In much the same way as cannabinoids are designed to deliver a similar high to marijuana, synthetic opioids mimic the effects of heroin and other opiates.
Synthetic opioids could become an attractive commodity for organised criminal groups on account of the fact that thousands of street doses can be produced from small quantities of the substances, the EMCDDA notes.
As such, drug traffickers could conceal and transport the raw ingredients requited to make these doses easily, posing a significant new challenge to law enforcement agencies.
The EMCDDA detected 25 new forms of synthetic opioids in Europe between 2009 and 2016, 18 of which were fentanils, an exceptionally potent new psychoactive substance.
Fentanils accounted for over 60% of the 600 seizures of new synthetic opioids reported in 2015, according to the organisation’s report.
Just 0.002 grams of fentanyl in 0.1 gram of heroin can cause a lethal overdose. The substance was said to have played a role in the death of pop star Prince in April 2016.
Earlier this year, the UK’s National Crime Agency warned that fentanyl is 100 times stronger than heroin after the bodies of two dead addicts were found to contain traces of the substance.
In 2016 alone, eight new fentanils were reported through the EU Early Warning System, through which the EMCDDA and Europol alert EU member states to emerging drug trends.
Overall, the EMCDDA identified more than one new psychoactive substance appearing on the European drug market every week last year.
Despite this, the overall number of new psychoactive substances discovered in Europe fell in 2016 compared to the previous year, which the agency attributed to new laws designed to crack down on their production in China, which has long been the world’s biggest producer of so-called legal highs.
Commenting on the findings of the report, EMCDDA Director Alexis Goosdeel said: “Our latest findings suggest that responses to new psychoactive substances (NPS), such as new legislation and measures targeting the high-street shops that sell these products, may be having an impact on the emergence of NPS on the market.
“But despite positive signs of a slowdown in product innovation, overall availability remains high. We are seeing sales of these drugs becoming more clandestine, with transactions moving online or onto the illicit drug market, and we have witnessed the recent appearance of some highly potent substances, which have been linked to deaths and serious intoxications.”