Government warnings about fentanyl hitting UK streets have inadvertently sparked a demand for the deadly opioid among drug users, a community leader has told IBTimes UK.
Last month, the National Crime Agency (NCA) revealed that 60 drug deaths had been linked to fentanyl and its cousins, including the elephant tranquilizer carfentanyl, since December 2016.
This followed a warning in April from Public Health England (PHE) that the synthetic opiates, which are 50 to 10,000 times stronger than heroin, were being mixed with the street drug.
But these announcements have merely whetted the appetite of some heroin users, according to Martin McCusker, chair of the Lambeth Service User Council, a support network for drug users in south London.
"The warnings have generated a lot of interest among drug users who think 'wow – this fentanyl stuff is sh*t cool – it must be really strong'," he said.
McCusker said he was not surprised by the response of his peers when they learned that fentanyl, which is ravaging communities across North America, was becoming more prevalent in this country.
"We get these warnings about overdoses but that's not what we hear," he said, adding that a drug user's typical thought process might be: "Wow, people are overdosing in Wandsworth. Oh right, they must have good gear in Wandsworth."
As little as 0.002g of fentanyl and 0.00002g of carfentanyl – a few grains – can be fatal. When dealers mix this with heroin the resultant product may contain "hotspots" – unintended concentrations of the more potent substances.
People experiencing an opioid overdose effectively forget to breathe as their respiratory systems shut down.
McCusker acknowledged agencies' predicaments when it comes to safeguarding drug users without giving harmful substances undue publicity.
But he said the government warnings, combined with media coverage about the spate of fentanyl-related deaths in the UK, had acted as "adverts" for the extra-strong painkiller, which killed the pop musician Prince.
"It's not that people want fentanyl. It's that people want stronger opioids and if fentanyl comes along then great," he said. "Just today I was talking to this guy and he said 'this dealer in [redacted] estate has got fentanyl.'"
McCusker claimed fentanyl was not being discussed among people who use heroin in the Brixton area until about six months ago, when reports of it being mixed with UK street supplies hit the mainstream press.
Recent interventions from government agencies had only heightened the buzz surrounding the drug, he added.
A spokesperson for PHE said: "The alert we put out was aimed primarily at emergency, medical and other frontline professionals. But we are aware that the decision about whether, and when, to issue an alert about a dangerous drug is a delicate balance between informing the right people to prevent overdoses and not driving demand for it."
No UK opioid epidemic – for now
At least 60 drug-related deaths have been linked to fentanyl and its analogues in the last eight months, according to figures released by the NCA at a briefing on 31 July. That number refers to cases where the substances showed up in toxicology reports and does not mean they were the outright cause of death.
The synthetic substances, largely imported from Chinese manufacturers, were not instrumental to the recent surge in UK opiate deaths, which jumped from 1,290 in 2012 to 2,038 in 2016. That rise has been attributed to an ageing heroin-using population more prone to underlying health problems, and the increased purity of street heroin.
McCusker pointed out that it was impossible for users to know they were buying fentanyl-laced heroin "unless you've got an amazing drug testing kit at home". He said that some of the excitement surrounding fentanyl was "just hype".
NCA Deputy Director Ian Cruxton told reporters at the July briefing he was "cautiously optimistic" that the UK heroin market would not be flooded with fentanyl.
He said there had been a significant reduction in fentanyl-related deaths after major busts on mixing 'labs' in Leeds and Wales as well as the seizure of dark web marketplaces Alpha Bay and Hansa by law enforcement agencies.
In an April briefing paper, the NCA said: "We have not seen any evidence to date of UK heroin users demanding fentanyl-laced heroin." McCusker's testimony suggests the tide may have turned.