Following Heroin Production Crackdown By Taliban, Criminal Enterprises Turning To Deadly Alternative Synthetics – OpEd


A crackdown on heroin production by the Taliban has successfully stemmed the flow of heroin from Afghanistan which had previously provided 95% of the UK heroin market. Following the Taliban crackdown, criminal enterprises are turning to deadly alternatives that has led to a boom in the easier-to-produce, cheap, but more deadly synthetics within in UK.

On the backdrop of this development, at least 54 deaths in the UK have been reported in the last six months due to super-strength street drug overdoses, which have stirred the nation. The drug under discussion is nitazenes which is reported to be far more powerful than heroin. Having similar properties to fentanyl, nitazenes can be up to 300 times stronger than heroin. They practically have no medical use and have a high risk of abuse.

Nitazenes were initially developed in the 1950s by the pharmaceutical research laboratories of a Swiss chemical company. 2-Benzyl Benzimidazole opioids, commonly known as nitazines, were developed in the 1950s as painkillers, but they were never approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for medical use in humans. Since first being detected, nitazenes have been blamed for 200 drug related overdose deaths in Europe and the United States. Although nitazenes are now identified as illegal street drugs in numerous countries, many medical providers aren’t even aware they exist. They were nearly forgotten outside of specialized research circles until they reemerged as street drugs in 2019. 

Nitazene first appeared in 2019 in the Midwest as a white powdery substance similar to cocaine. It later appeared on the streets of Washington, D.C., as yellow, brown and white powders. Whereas, in UK it was first detected from a sample of white powder found in the back of a taxi in Wakefield in April 2021, nitazenes have since been found in heroin, cannabis, cocaine, in a vape and most prevalently in black market pills sold as the anti-anxiety drug diazepam. Recently, the opioid is thought to have been cut into a batch of drugs in Dublin, causing 57 people to overdose within a few days.

Nitazenes are a class of synthetic opioids that contains more than 20 unique compounds, including isotonitazene, which was first identified in 2019 and is known on the streets as ISO. It also includes protonitazene, metonitazene and etonitazene. Nitazenes are psychoactive substances, or “designer drugs,” that aren’t controlled by any laws or conventions but pose significant health risks to the public. These substances have recently surfaced as illegal street drugs. Nitazenes are also mixed with other street drugs such as heroin and fentanyl.

As mentioned, nitazenes have similar properties to fentanyl but can be up to 300 times stronger than heroin, they practically have no medical use and have a high risk of abuse. The opioid fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and is the primary drug in North America, where synthetic opioids are estimated to have caused 75,000 deaths in the US last year. The opioids have also been linked to recent overdose deaths in Northern Ireland. In Edmonton, Canada, law enforcement officers last year said they seized 10.5 kilograms of isotonitazene during a raid of a drug “super lab,” the largest seizure of that drug in the country’s history.

Since 2022, the DEA has found other types of nitazenes in both powder and blue tablet forms. The Justice Department has indicted several companies in China, alleging that they ship the raw chemicals to make nitazenes to Mexico and the U.S., where they get mixed by cartels and traffickers, then distributed on the streets. Similarly, it is alleged that labs in China are also creating these drugs. They know how to create them because the blueprints are out there online, but they’re creating new modifications, new drugs that sort of skirt around these national and international laws but still retain those opioid-like effects that people are interested in.

Nitazenes pose a credible threat as there are an increasing number of synthetic opioids being detected in drugs that people thought were very different. A dangerous market has become even more deadly which ultimately calls for a quick government level action on this, more testing and provision of drugs that can counter the effects of opioid overdose, because world is sleepwalking into what can be called as a next massive public health crisis, and we are not prepared for it.

Noureen Akhtar

Noureen Akhtar s a PhD Scholar (SPIR-QAU) and has worked on various public policy issues as a Policy Consultant in National Security Division (NSD), Prime Minister's Office (PMO). Currently, she is working in Islamabad Policy Research Institution (IPRI) as a Policy Researcher/Consultant. Her work has been published in local and International publications. She can be reached at [email protected]. Twitter: @NoureenAkhtar16

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