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Nitazene: Scenes From Britain’s Struggle with a Powerful New Drug

Meanwhile, the death toll rises. John told me he was 44—the same age as me—when we first met. That is just under the average age of death for homeless men in Britain. This is more than 30 years shorter than the country’s average male life expectancy.”

It is 6 p.m. on Friday night in Norwich, right before Easter. I am standing by the War Memorial Garden terrace, overlooking the city’s historic outdoor market, as it comes to an end for the day. As the sun slowly sets and shadows begin to engulf the rows of vividly colored stalls, life seems to come to a halt. An eerie calm descends upon the square during the brief respite between traders packing up and heading home and the city bursting back to life with partygoers. This momentary state of tranquility is shattered, however, as I hear the sounds of an ambulance approaching, its blue lights flickering and briefly illuminating the fading Norfolk skyline. 

The ambulance pulls up outside a nearby clothing store to find a nervous-looking woman standing next to a man lying face down in a shop doorway. A couple of green-clad paramedics emerge wearing fluorescent yellow jackets. “What’s he taken?” The question is posed with the tone of someone who has seen this a thousand times. “I don’t know,” comes the response. The man appears to be in his 50s; he is missing a shoe and is wearing a ripped gray hooded sweatshirt. The woman shrugs off the other paramedic’s question about his name. When the vital signs are checked, it is discovered that he has overdosed.

After receiving what appears to be an injection in his upper arm, he slowly starts to recover. Thirty minutes or so later, he starts to get up and takes his first tentative steps. While packing up, the emergency crew receives a message and leaves. After an hour, everyone has left.

On a busy Easter weekend, a paramedic is a modern-day Jesus, attempting to resurrect those who have fallen victim to sin and temptation. Still, it is by no means a seasonal aberration. People witness this awful sight on British streets every night of the year.

From 2014-2016, Norwich had the highest heroin fatality rate in eastern England. From 2016-2018, the city had the second highest number of drug-related deaths in the country. For a while, things began to get much better as a result of increased funding, greater public awareness, and stronger law enforcement. By 2021, the number of people dying from drugs in the county of Norfolk was down to the lowest level in almost a decade. More recently, though, that positive trend began to reverse. According to the latest figures, there were 83 drug deaths in Norfolk in 2022—a rise of nearly 60% on the previous year and the highest since records began.

While the man I witnessed recovered completely, this is not likely to be the case for everyone. If one is homeless, his chances of surviving a drug overdose are significantly reduced. Nevertheless, for the approximately 4,000 people who sleep on concrete every night in England, that is their reality.

I meet a man wrapped in a frayed sleeping bag as I cross the Wensum River, which cuts right through the center of the city. John—six feet, rakish thin, face etched with a sadness that looks inherited rather than temporary—tells me he takes drugs “because of boredom, trauma, and depression.” A talented musician, he suffers from anxiety, and he started taking drugs as a teenager to cope. “I started with weed and when it stopped working, I tried stronger stuff,” John asserts. 

Drug poisoning was the cause of 259 homeless people’s deaths in 2021, a 36% increase from 2017. The number is likely to soar further as a result of the introduction of the new recreational drug nitazene. In Britain, this powerful synthetic opioid, said to be as much as forty times stronger than fentanyl, has begun to show up on the streets. Because of its extreme potency and the likelihood of an accidental overdose due to users not realizing what they are taking, this is extremely dangerous. Data from the National Crime Agency shows that since the summer, nitazenes have been linked to more than 100 deaths.

Bob is a chatty young man I meet outside a charity store. Holding a half-empty bottle of whisky in one hand, the man is talking so much that he forgets that the cigarette he is smoking has burned down to his fingers. Drinking alcohol first thing in the morning is said by some to help avoid hangovers. This practice is known colloquially as “the hair of the dog,” However, it appears my new friend is using it as an anesthetic. It is evident after a brief conversation that this Irishman’s bark is worse than his bite. I ask him about the bruises on his face. “You should see the other guy,” he says with a muffled laugh. I ask him if he is familiar with nitazene. His cheerful disposition abruptly changes. He throws the cigarette stub in disgust and informs me that a friend of his overdosed on the drug a few months ago. I decide to move on.

The worldwide distribution of heroin was substantially limited by the Taliban’s 2022 ban on the production of opium. To boost profits, dealers started cutting the drug with a new synthetic opioid. Nitazene offers several advantages over traditional narcotics for manufacturers. Its ingredients, unlike those of cocaine and heroin, do not need to be grown from coca leaves or opium poppies; they can be purchased online. The chemicals are mainly created in China. Produced at low cost and with ease, the drug is becoming increasingly common on the streets. 

Dublin has a very serious problem with the drug. In November last year, 40 overdoses were reported in the city in just 36 hours—two of which were fatal. It was later confirmed that a batch of heroin had been spiked with nitazene. Bob puts it poignantly when he says, “You don’t get a second chance with this stuff.”

Obtaining one’s preferred drug is easy when one lives on the street. Users seem to have a plethora of options at their disposal. While seated on the steps outside the city library, I watch several dealers acting brazenly, confident they will not be arrested, and taking advantage of a lenient criminal justice system.

I make my way to Elm Hill, a place where the past and present coexist harmoniously. The beautiful medieval street is bordered by 16th-century Tudor buildings that overhang in a distinctive jettying style. Artisanal cafes blend seamlessly with old timber framed merchant houses. As I traverse its cobbled street, I see what appears to be a drug deal. A boy, who could not be more than 15, cycles past me and shoots me a disapproving look. I talk to his most recent customer. “It’s like an Uber for junkies,” a woman with her hair hastily tied up tells me. She is homeless and addicted to heroin. A £20 wrap of heroin is “enough to get you through the day.” 

Most homeless addicts fund their addictions through shoplifting or begging. A number of the people I met told me they could make £50 a day in the city center. Some take a more aggressive stance, intimidating and harassing members of the public into giving them money. It seems positioning oneself near a bank is a common approach. I saw several individuals sitting beneath an ATM, requesting money from those taking out cash. While the majority just said “thank you” when they refused, I witnessed one woman try to take hold of another woman’s purse. Drug addiction does not just endanger the public; it puts the addict’s life in danger. A number of beggars have been attacked, and some have been killed.

The next day, I wander to the cemetery, about a mile west of the city. Western red cedar trees greet me at the entrance to this 34-acre estate. The natural world gently reminds me of rebirth everywhere I look, now that spring has arrived. There are daffodils and snowdrops lining the well-traveled, muddy track. Muntjac deer cautiously look through the brush, watching my every step as I navigate its immense perimeter. A few feet away from me, I notice a yellow string wrapped around a tree. It reminds me of the symbol of support for missing loved ones. Perhaps it is. But this one seems to be holding up a tent. Among the trash is a long list of drug paraphernalia, including several used syringes, burned spoons, and empty citric acid sachets.

The city’s numerous needle exchange programs have unintentionally conveyed the message that open-air intravenous drug use is not only accepted but tolerated. Used syringes are scattered across the pavement as I stroll along Timber Hill, one of the city’s oldest recorded streets. When the heroin epidemic in the city was at its worst, council employees gathered over 2,500 used needles, mostly from children’s playgrounds and parks. This reckless behavior could have a major negative impact on public health. There is a significant chance of contamination if a person steps on one by accident or if a child picks one up. Approximately 90% of hepatitis C infections are found in intravenous drug users, according to data from the National Health Service.

A man in his late 30s, with sunken cheeks and an antalgic gait, approaches me as I am about to leave. Paul has been camping here for the past six months, splitting up with his girlfriend and ending up homeless. He developed a drug problem during their time together, and he was abandoned to nurse his addiction in the cemetery. “They’re a godsend when it’s cold,” Paul says as a gray squirrel, probably annoyed that we were in his territory to gather nuts, descends a nearby tree.

I mean, they can be dangerous, but I’m left alone around here.” He gestures to the vast graveyard in which we are currently conversing. I inquired as to if he was aware of nitazene. There is a pause, and then he clears his throat and starts talking. “It scares me if I’m honest. But I’m an addict, what choice have I got?” If hope springs eternal, no one told this particular Scotsman. His carefree yet perceptive attitude reminds me of Hunter S. Thompson’s adage, “buy the ticket, take the ride.”

Change Grow Live is extremely concerned about the drug’s potency. With hubs in Norwich, Thetford, Kings Lynn, and Great Yarmouth, it is one of the county’s primary centers for the treatment of alcohol and drug abuse. “It’s [nitazene] our main cause for concern with the changing drug market,” Jack Cross, a coordinator at the service, told the BBC. “They are very, very new to us.” The combination of unknown and strong is a potential recipe for disaster. Cross predicted that there would be a “lot more overdoses.”

Addiction to drugs destroys the lives of others and is by no means merely a lifestyle choice. It tears the community’s heart out, replacing a once thriving, high-trust communitarian society with one based on mistrust. Shoplifting is one of the most visible and rapidly growing crimes in the United Kingdom. According to data from the British Retail Consortium, shoplifting cost British retailers almost £1.8 billion last year. Data indicates that there were 5.6 million theft incidents reported in British stores in 2023. Drug addiction is one of the main motivating factors behind repeated shoplifting. 

As a result, the British government reclassified 15 different varieties of synthetic opioids as Class A, meaning those found in possession of or distributing them face more severe penalties. In the meantime, during a series of high-profile raids last year, 150,000 nitazene pills were found and 11 people were arrested, leading to the largest-ever synthetic opioid seizure in British history.

Arresting drug dealers and imposing longer sentences may have some impact on the supply side, but it will not significantly decrease demand. Locking up drug addicts is also not the solution. Short jail terms do not reduce recidivism because they offer little chance for rehabilitation. As the ever-loquacious Bob says, “Sending a junkie to prison is like giving me, [an alcoholic], work experience at an off-license [liquor store].”

Furthermore, British courts are overloaded. At more than 66,000, the backlog of court cases is at an all-time record high. Nearly 10% of them (6,500)—up from 530 in 2019—have been waiting to go to trial for more than two years.

Even if we could lock them up, we simply do not have the room. England has a severe prison overcrowding problem. The male prison population is at 99% capacity, with only 1,000 places remaining in the men’s estate. It is also expensive. The average annual cost of incarcerating an individual is approximately £46,000 (about $57,500). 

While dealers should face justice, drug-addicted shoplifters should be sent to a drug treatment facility. The Centre for Social Justice, a conservative think tank, supports this policy. Its Second Chance program advocates targeting the country’s 10,000 most prolific drug-dependent shoplifters for residential rehabilitation.

If we do not tackle this now, the fentanyl drug crisis in the United States—which claimed over 112,000 American lives last year—could spread to the United Kingdom. We must increase the accessibility of naloxone and other opioid-antagonist drugs and develop drug testing tools to guarantee the safety of those who use illegal drugs, in order to prevent a further public health emergency.

A multi-agency approach is required for this to happen. The police need to liaise with local community leaders, and reports—like the one drawn up by the Centre for Social Justice—must be taken seriously by the legal system. Additionally, cross-party political support will be needed. Help and support should, after all, transcend ideological distinctions. Resources must be wisely distributed and strategically targeted. At the individual level, people should not give money to rough sleepers. Although it may seem counterintuitive, giving on the street can keep drug addicts in a permanent and possibly life-threatening state of dependency.

Meanwhile, the death toll rises. John told me he was 44—the same age as me—when we first met. That is just under the average age of death for homeless men in Britain. This is more than 30 years shorter than the country’s average male life expectancy. 

It is our responsibility to provide support to those in society who have fallen on hard times. It is cruel to leave people to die on the streets; it is neither compassionate nor progressive. We must act now, before it is too late, and accept some uncomfortable facts and awkward truths if we are genuine about wanting to help others.

Noel Yaxley is an independent journalist in the United Kingdom. He writes regularly for The Spectator Australia and City Journal and has also contributed to numerous other publications, including Quillette and Compact

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