A study published at the beginning of June by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) revealed that the number deaths caused by synthetic opioid use increased by 6% to 8,441 across the EU in 2015. The Lisbon-based drug monitoring agency’s report added to concerns that Europe could be on the cusp of an epidemic of synthetic opioid use, similar to that which has swept many parts of North America in recent years. The EMCDDA study noted that while the EU synthetic opioid market remains relatively small, the highly-potent alternatives to heroin are behind a growing number or non-fatal overdoses as well as deaths in member states.
Of the 25 new forms of synthetic opioids detected in Europe by the EMCDDA between 2009 and 2016, 18 were fentanils. Fentanyl, which is said to be between 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, is often used to treat chronic conditions such as cancer. The EMCDDA said fentanils accounted for more than 60% of the 600 seizures of new synthetic opioids reported across Europe in 2015.
Fentanyl, which is thought to have played a major role in the untimely death of pop singer Prince in April of last year, has become the drug of choice for many addicts across the US. It is so potent that a single microgram can be enough to kill a person. Just 0.002 grams of fentanyl in 0.1 gram of heroin can cause a lethal overdose. Developed in the 1960s and legally offered to chronically-ill patients for pain relief, fentanyl is now mass produced by illicit drug factories in Mexico and China and trafficked to the US and other western countries.
As well as being popular among some drug users in its own right, fentanyl is often added to heroin and sold by dealers as other pharmaceutical medications used on the street such as Xanax and OxyContin. The EMCDDA notes that fentanyl and other forms of synthetic opioid have the potential to become attractive commodities for organised criminal groups in Europe, in much the same way as they have in North America. Thousands of street doses can be produced from small quantities of fentanyl, making it easier to conceal than traditional drugs such as heroin, and therefore less risky for traffickers to transport. Evidence from the US and Canada also suggests that adding fentanyl to heroin can increase demand for the drug, allowing dealers to boost their prices.
Fentanyl has been popular in Estonia since around the turn of millennium, when a Taliban-imposed crackdown on opium poppy harvesting in Afghanistan led to a heroin drought in the Baltic nation. Since then, the country’s addicts have stuck with the drug, despite it being responsible for a spate of overdose deaths that began almost as soon as it became available there. While fentanyl and other synthetic opioids have been slow to catch on further west in Europe, it appears as though things could be changing. Much like methamphetamine, another import from the US, there is now growing evidence that synthetic opioids are growing in popularity in central and Western Europe.
The UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) first noted a rise in the seizure of fentanyl-laced heroin at the end of 2016, and has suggested that the introduction of the substance into British drug markets could result in an increase in overdoses deaths. After raiding a drugs factory in West Yorkshire suspected of producing fentanyl in April this year, the NCA warned drug users to vigilant in the wake of a number of deaths that may have been attributable to synthetic opioids.
China, which is responsible for a huge proportion of the synthetic opioids that are currently flooding North America, as well as the majority of new psychoactive substances that are sold in Europe, has taken steps to crackdown on illegal drug factories that produce fentanyl and similar drugs operating within its borders. In the US, the Trump administration hopes that erecting the President’s Great Wall will keep out the massive quantities of illicit fentanyl and other substances that make their way into the country from Mexico. Unfortunately though, all that is needed to make fentanyl and other synthetic opiates is a rudimentary understanding of chemistry and the raw ingredients required to make the drug.
The fact that fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are such an attractive proposition to organised criminals makes it all but inevitable that their use will grow further throughout Europe. Unlike methamphetamine, which has largely been confined to use at chemsex parties and the gay community, synthetic opioids are too cheap and versatile for European drug producers and smugglers to ignore. As such, member states can expect to see more non-fatal overdoses and deaths attributed to these substances, be that as consequence of them being added to heroin, missold as other substances or offered to addicts in their own right.
The only solution to the problem, as with the war on drugs on general, is a programme of legalisation and regulation that results standardised drugs being offered to all addicts. Until that happens, the use of synthetic opioids and new psychoactive substances will continue to increase across the EU and elsewhere, devastating the lives of addicts and the communities in which they live.