Nitazenes: Deadly synthetic opioids sweep across Europe and spark fears of overdose crisis in New Zealand

The NZ Drug Foundation provides nitazene test strips free of charge. Photo / New Zealand Pharmaceutical Foundation

Drug safety advocates are increasingly concerned that the “new fentanyl”, which is killing drug users in Europe, is becoming a stronghold in New Zealand.

Nitazenes are laboratory-made opioids considered more dangerous than fentanyl – a drug that causes tens of thousands of deaths in the United States each year. Nitazenes are extremely powerful and a dose as small as a grain of sand can be fatal.

And the synthetic drug has made its way to Europe, with the UK’s National Crime Agency revealing in January that 65 people had died from taking nitazenes.

Experts are perplexed by the potency of these drugs – with some saying they are 20 to 100 times more potent than heroin, depending on the dose.

AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.

This is something that is of concern to those on the ground in New Zealand.

Know Your Stuff, Aotearoa’s legal drug control program, said nitazenes had been detected in New Zealand as early as 2022. In September 2023, metonitazene (purchased as oxycodone) caused one death and several harmful incidents.

Drug Foundation Executive Director Sarah Helm said The first page This is particularly concerning when they are sold like other medications.

“In Europe in particular, from what I hear on the ground, there is falsification of benzodiazepines. There, benzos sold on the street are very cheap and we have seen them here as well. And in Australia, nitazenes appear as methamphetamine and MDMA.

AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.

“We are already experiencing loss of life and we are very worried about what the coming months or years could mean for us,” she said.

When Helm visited Canada early last year, she saw first-hand the effects of fentanyl and nitazenes.

“When I walked the streets of Vancouver and Toronto and saw people overdosing with no one helping them, I became very concerned about our communities who would be more likely to be affected. I really don’t want that for our people here in New Zealand,” she said.

“One of our staff members experienced the loss of a number of her college friends in Canada who had unintentionally taken fentanyl when they (thought they were) using MDMA. »

This year in New Zealand, the High Alert dangerous drug alert system detected a type of nitazene, N-desethyletonitazene, sold in tablet form as diazepam and bromazolam in the Wellington and Tauranga regions .

Bromazolam and diazepam are benzodiazepines often prescribed to treat anxiety or sleep. But the compound found in the pills tested is instead believed to be up to 10 times more potent than fentanyl.

Work is underway to make naloxone – a medication that quickly reverses an opioid overdose – more accessible in the community. People can get injectable naloxone through needle exchanges, but advocates are pushing for Pharmac to also fund nasal spray (nyxoid) naloxone.

Know your business told The first page New Zealand’s medical system is “woefully unprepared for a crisis” like the one hitting North America and Europe.

“Nyxoid is available for purchase in New Zealand, but at around $50 per dose, it is often inaccessible to people who need it,” the organization said in a statement, adding that it had heard stories of Kiwis ‘drug hopping’ while on holiday in Australia. “visit every pharmacy in Melbourne in one day to collect the free Nyxoid and go home with it”.

Although New Zealand has taken innovative steps to prevent drug-related deaths, such as legalizing drug testing and improving the availability of injectable naloxone, Helm said we still have a long way to go. Browse.

AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.

“New Zealand has never really had an overdose strategy or plan. We’ve ignored the overdose deaths we’ve had, we’ve rested on our laurels thinking we don’t have as many as others,” she said.

“We also don’t have a number of things that other countries have created – for example, overdose prevention centers or supervised spaces for drug use. We have created a proposal to create one in collaboration with a number of key stakeholders in Auckland’s city centre.

Helm highlights the success of the Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Center (Uniting MSIC) in Sydney, across Tasmania, a hands-on health service that seeks to connect with people who inject drugs.

Since 2001, the center has overseen 1.28 million injections, managed 11,205 overdoses, made 22,000 referrals for ongoing care and support – and recorded no deaths on its premises.

Uniting MSIC said it had eased pressure on emergency services, with an initial study showing the number of ambulance calls in Kings Cross had fallen by 80 per cent.

“They are all over Canada and in several other places. There is tons of evidence. I’ve been around a very long time at this point, so the fact that we don’t have one is political, historical, an anomaly and really a bit painful,” Helm said.

AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.

People can get free nitazene test strips from the Drug Foundation on its website. Test strips and shipping are free within New Zealand and are dispatched within three working days.

Listen to the full episode to learn more about nitazenes and what more can be done to prevent overdoses in New Zealand.

The first page is a daily current affairs podcast from Herald of New Zealand, available to listen to every day of the week from 5 a.m. The podcast is presented by Chelsea Daniels, an Auckland-based journalist with experience in global news and crime and justice journalism who joined NZME in 2016.

You can follow the podcast on iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts, Spotifyor wherever you get your podcasts.