Europe has a growing market for the opioid painkillers that have caused a deadly drug epidemic in the US, it’s been claimed.
The painkillers include fentanyl, which crime agency Europol says is driving an increase in the number of deaths from drug overdoses on the continent.
According to Europol, 8,441 died from a drug overdose in 2015 - the latest year for which figures are available - up by more than a thousand two years earlier.
The news comes as Brussels announced on Tuesday it wants to ban three new opioids that are related to fentanyl.
Fentanyl is used to treat cancer pain but legal supplies are being diverted to the black market as substitute for heroin, say the law enforcement agency.
There have been 24 different types of fentanyl found on Europe’s drug market over the last five years, with 14 of them discovered since January 2016.
How dangerous is fentanyl?
Fentanyl is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, according to the US-based National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“A small number of fentanyls are widely used as medicine for pain relief and the immobilisation of large animals,” wrote Europol in a recent paper about illegal drugs.
“Due to their psychoactive effects, such as causing euphoria, they are also used as a replacement for heroin.
“Typically, use of very small amounts of fentanyls can quickly poison an individual by causing depression of the respiratory and central nervous system.
“Left untreated, poisoning may cause death.”
What’s been happening in the US?
Latest figures show US drug overdose deaths from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids hit 20,145 in 2016, double the number from a year earlier.
Donald Trump has called the US’ opioid abuse problem a public health emergency.
The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has published a brief calling fentanyl a ‘global threat’ and said the number of forensic tests for the drug leapt from just 934 in 2013 to 13,002 two years later.
“Illicitly manufactured fentanyl is now a major driver of opioid overdose deaths in multiple states, with a variety of fentanyl analogs [a drug designed to mimic the pharmacological effects of fentanyl ] increasingly involved, if not solely implicated, in these deaths,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
“Fentanyl was involved in more than 50 percent of opioid overdose deaths, and more than 50 percent of deaths testing positive for fentanyl and fentanyl analogs also tested positive for other illicit drugs,” it added.
Where is worse in Europe for fentanyl?
Overdose deaths from all opioids, not just fentanyl, hit 2,304 in the UK, the highest number in Europe.
The data, published by European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), shows the UK’s level in 2014 was more than double that of the next biggest country, Germany, which had 798 fatalities.
But EMCDDA say drug overdose deaths could be much higher because of systematic under-reporting in some countries.
The agency, in a report published this month, says the UK had 60 deaths from fentanyl between November 2016 and August 2017.