VIENNA: The UN drugs agency on Wednesday sounded the alarm on a group of potent synthetic opioids, as it warned that the drop in Afghanistan’s opium production may boost synthetic drug use.

“Nitazenes — a group of synthetic opioids which can be even more potent than fentanyl — have recently emerged in several high-income countries, resulting in an increase in overdose deaths,” the Vienna-based United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a press release.

Its annual report noted that the drug had been found in Belgium, Canada, Estonia, Latvia, Slovenia, Britain and the United States.

Other organisations, including the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), have likewise warned of the emergence of nitazenes. “The purity of heroin on the market is expected to decline,” UNODC noted, warning that “heroin users may switch to other opioids” with those posing “significant risks to health”.

World drug report fears increase in overdose deaths as heroin users switch to synthetic products

UNODC chief researcher Angela Me noted that currently there was no shortage of heroin yet, but in the case of some overdose deaths, nitazenes — which originate mostly in China — were thought to have been mixed into heroin.

Afghan opium production plummets

The Taliban-ordered crash in opium production in Afghanistan, long the world’s dominant supplier, could drive up overdose deaths as heroin users switch to synthetic opioids already proving deadly in Europe, the UN report said.

The cultivation of opium, from which heroin is made, fell by 95pc in Afghanistan last year after the Taliban banned the production of narcotics in 2022. Although opium production in Myanmar increased by 36pc last year, it still fell globally by 75pc, the UNODC said in its annual World Drug Report.

“The result of a prolonged shortage of Afghan opiates could have multiple consequences in Afghanistan and in countries of transit and destination for Afghan opiates. The purity of heroin on the market is expected to decline,” the UNODC said.

Preliminary field observations indicate a possible slight increase in Afghan opium cultivation this year but it is unlikely to return to pre-ban levels, the UNODC said.

While there were “no real shortages” in the main destination markets for Afghan opiates such as Europe, the Middle East and South Asia were reported until early 2024, that could change if future harvests remain small, it added.

“Demand for opiate treatment services, including for methadone, buprenorphine, and slow-release morphine treatment, may rise, but if these services are insufficient, heroin users may switch to other opioids,” the report said, outlining the potential impact of reduced opiate supply.

“Such a switch may pose significant risks to health and lead to an increase in overdoses, especially if the alternative opioids include highly potent substances such as some fentanyl analogues or nitazenes that have already emerged in some European countries in recent years,” it added.

Overdose deaths from nitazenes, a type of synthetic opioid more potent than fentanyl, have been reported in Ireland, Britain, Estonia and Latvia, UNODC research chief Angela Me told reporters.

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2024

Opinion

Editorial

Miles to go
Updated 14 Jul, 2024

Miles to go

Some reforms agreed with the Fund are going to seriously impact economic growth and fresh investments, at least in the short term.
Iddat ruling
14 Jul, 2024

Iddat ruling

IT was a needless, despicable spectacle which only ended up uniting both conservatives and progressives in ...
Cricket shake-up
14 Jul, 2024

Cricket shake-up

SOMEONE had to take the blame and bear the brunt of the fallout from Pakistan’s disastrous showing at the T20 ...
Injustice undone
Updated 13 Jul, 2024

Injustice undone

The SC verdict is a stunning reversal of fortunes for a party that was, both before and after general elections, being treated as a defunct entity.
Looming flour shortage
13 Jul, 2024

Looming flour shortage

FOR once, it is hard to argue against the reason that compelled flour mills to call a nationwide strike from...
Same old script
13 Jul, 2024

Same old script

WHEN it comes to the troubling issue of enforced disappearances/ missing persons — either Baloch or belonging to...