Highly Potent Synthetic Opioids Called Nitazenes Detected in Australia, Prompting Health Alerts

Highly potent synthetic opioids called nitazenes detected in Australia, posing grave overdose risks. Experts call for harm reduction strategies like drug-checking and safe injection sites to address this emerging threat.

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Geeta Pillai
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Highly Potent Synthetic Opioids Called Nitazenes Detected in Australia, Prompting Health Alerts

Highly Potent Synthetic Opioids Called Nitazenes Detected in Australia, Prompting Health Alerts

A new group of highly potent synthetic opioids called nitazenes has been detected in Australia, where they are being sold as heroin and other drugs. Nitazenes, which are similar to the drug fentanyl that has led to unprecedented deaths in North America, can be 10 to 100 times more potent than fentanyl, making them highly addictive and dangerous.

Concerns about the potential harms associated with these drugs have led to government health alerts and coroners' recommendations for drug-checking to prevent potential harms. The Victorian coroner's court has reported at least 16 fatal overdoses involving nitazenes since 2021.

Why this matters: The arrival of nitazenes in Australia could significantly increase the drug-related death rate if they become more prevalent in the market. Addressing this emerging threat requires a shift towards harm reduction strategies and drug policy reforms.

In Australia, nitazenes have appeared in falsified pharmaceutical products and as contaminants in drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine, MDMA, and ketamine. The detection of nitazenes in drugs sold as MDMA highlights the need for drug-checking services to prevent overdoses.

Proposed public health responses to the threat of nitazenes include drug-checking, increasing access to supervised injecting facilities, expanding access to naloxone, drug education, and increasing access to opioid dependence treatments. Harm reduction advocates are also calling for drug decriminalization to reduce stigma and enable access to drug-testing facilities.

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who chairs the Global Commission on Drug Policy, emphasized the urgent need for a second safe-injecting room in Melbourne to keep drug users safe. "Without such services, synthetic drugs like nitazenes may continue to be sold as other substances, leading to more overdoses," Clark warned. She also advocated for changes to the UN drug conventions, which she said focus too heavily on law enforcement and perpetuate stigma around drug use.

Health experts warn that Australia has an opportunity to learn from the North American experience and implement harm reduction strategies to address the threat of nitazenes before they become a widespread issue. The detection of these highly potent synthetic opioids in several Australian states, including the ACT, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, underscores the need for swift action to prevent a potential public health crisis.

Key Takeaways

  • Highly potent synthetic opioids called nitazenes detected in Australia, sold as heroin.
  • Nitazenes 10-100 times more potent than fentanyl, leading to fatal overdoses in Victoria.
  • Nitazenes found in falsified drugs and as contaminants, highlighting need for drug-checking.
  • Harm reduction strategies proposed, including drug-checking, supervised injection facilities, and naloxone.
  • Experts warn of potential public health crisis, call for swift action to address nitazene threat.