Heroin shortage could lead to more powerful synthetic opioids

Ireland and other EU countries are being warned to prepare for a future heroin shortage and have a plan in place if the market is filled with much more potent synthetic opioids.

The European Drugs Agency also said cocaine seizures had reached record levels – for the sixth year in a row – and that EU seizures now exceed those made in the United States, historically considered the largest market world of cocaine.

The 2024 European Drug Report also raises concerns about the growing strength of cannabis resin as well as highly potent cannabis extracts and edibles, including jellies, as well as the dangers posed by synthetic cannabinoids, the latter leading to poisonings of children, particularly in Ireland.

Regarding the risk posed by synthetic opioids, the report says Ireland and France have recently been hit by “localized poisoning outbreaks” and that any large-scale supply of these chemicals could lead to “multiple poisonings.” over a short period of time, with the potential to “overwhelm” local services.

The group of synthetic opioids called nitazenes – estimated to be hundreds of times more potent than heroin – suddenly appeared in Dublin and Cork late last year and caused a total of 77 overdoses, including, reportedly he said, a certain number of deaths. .

Authorities believe it was all part of a single batch and suspect it was an attempt by traffickers to test the market here.

“In Ireland, nitazenes have been mis-sold as heroin, leading to multiple overdoses and have also been linked to overdoses in two prisons in 2024,” according to the EU report published Tuesday by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and drug addiction (Emcdda). ).

The report said the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released a study this year estimating that production of opium, from which heroin is made, fell by 95% in 2023.

As there appear to be “substantial” stocks of opium in Afghanistan, there is little evidence of a disruption in heroin flows to Europe.

“However, there is concern that a future heroin shortage could lead to market gaps being filled with powerful synthetic opioids or synthetic stimulants,” the report said.

“This could have potentially significant negative effects on public health and safety.” »

Taliban bans opium production

It is too early to say whether the ban on opium production imposed by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, introduced in April 2022, will be maintained over time.

But he adds: “It would be prudent to prepare for a possible heroin shortage at the end of 2024 or 2025.”

He urged countries to ensure they have enough treatment places for people struggling with their opioid use and to monitor the emergence of powerful synthetic opioids, but also more established drugs, such as stimulants.

The agency called on member states to have a “multi-agency rapid response plan”, including an effective communications system to alert people at risk and frontline services.

He said there was a broader risk beyond heroin users because synthetic opioids were sold as or mixed with other substances.

“The population at risk is not necessarily limited to those who have previously used opioids,” the report states.

While the nitazene found in Ireland was in powder form, sold as heroin, nitazenes have been found in tablets in the UK, suggesting that a much wider market of drug users might unknowingly , consume tablets containing them.

The Emcdda said a “critical requirement” was for countries to have adequate supplies of the heroin antidote naloxone for frontline workers, such as police, ambulance and service providers at low threshold.

The HSE’s rapid response to the nitazene outbreak is highlighted in the report and has already been praised by agencies in the North and Britain. It included the provision of naloxone, the creation of a multi-agency group, the rapid testing of samples and the issuance of red alerts to users.

The National Red Alert Group was established, coordinated by the HSE and bringing together Forensic Science Ireland, the State Laboratory, the National Drug Treatment Centre, the gardaí, the National Ambulance Service and the Dublin Fire Brigade, as well as academics.

As the Irish Examiner reported last month, this group has urged the government to prioritize policy and resources to prepare for any future supply of synthetic opioids. He declared that the continuation of the operations of this small team, set up as an emergency, was “not sustainable” in the future, the group said.

He said: “Significant work has been required by a small Irish co-ordination group who have adapted their current roles to focus on outbreaks.

“This approach will not be sustainable in the long term, which highlights the need to establish political priorities. Increased budgetary allocation should be provided to improve early warning mechanisms, expand harm reduction and treatment responses, and improve drug control through a dedicated drug monitoring laboratory.

The EU report said six of the seven new synthetic opioids first reported in 2023 to the EU early warning system were nitazenes – the highest number ever recorded in a single year.

Furthermore, underlines the report, for the sixth consecutive year, record quantities of cocaine have been seized in EU member states, with 323 tonnes confiscated in 2022, compared to 303 in 2021.