The Washington Division of the United States Drug Enforcement Agency is raising awareness about nitazenes, a dangerous class of drugs it sees emerging in the region. Nitazines come from China and are mixed with other drugs, according to the DEA. Isotonitazene, also known as nitazene or “ISO”, is a synthetic opioid first identified circa 2019. Photo courtesy of the US Drug Enforcement Agency
Nitazenes: You’ve probably never heard of these highly toxic drugs, and neither have many Americans who abuse opioid drugs.
This lack of awareness could prove deadly, experts warn, as nitazenes are increasingly added to heroin and street versions of opioid pills – and trigger fatal overdoses.
“Results of laboratory tests indicate that the potency of some nitazene analogs [e.g., isotonitazene, protonitazene, and etonitazene] far exceeds that of fentanyl, while the potency of the analogue metonitazene is similar to that of fentanyl,” explained a team of researchers from the Tennessee Department of Health.
Drug-related deaths are on the rise. In their report released Friday, Jessica Korona-Bailey and her colleagues said that “four times as many overdoses involving nitazene were identified in Tennessee in 2021 than in 2020, and this number may be underestimated due to the low frequency of tests”.
Overall, Tennessee deaths known to be linked to synthetic opioids have risen from 10 in 2020 to 42 a year later, with the majority of those killed being young men (average age 40).
Worse still, naloxone — the lifesaving antidote injection for someone suffering from an opioid overdose — may not help if given as a single dose in cases involving nitazenes.
“Naloxone was effective in reversing nitazene overdoses, but multiple doses may be needed,” the Tennessee researchers advised.
The growing danger of nitazene-tainted opioids in the illicit drug supply is of course not unique to Tennessee.
In June, the Washington, DC-based branch of the United States Drug Enforcement Agency issued an alert about the same class of drugs spotted in that region.
“A drug that has never been approved for medical use, nitazenes originated in China and are mixed with other drugs,” the DEA explained in a statement.
One nitazene, isotonatazene (nicknamed ISO), was particularly prevalent in the DC region.
“First identified around 2019 in the Midwest, this dangerous drug has moved into southern states and more recently along the Eastern Seaboard,” the agency explained.
“Much more powerful than heroin and morphine [similar to fentanyl], ISO is mixed and marketed like other drugs to make the drugs more potent and cheaper to produce. The main concern: This drug can and has caused fatal overdoses in unsuspecting victims,” according to the DEA.
ISO is now often mixed into street heroin or squeezed into counterfeit opioid pills ‘falsely marketed as pharmaceutical drugs’ [like Dilaudid ‘M-8’ tablets and oxycodone ‘M30’ tablets]“, explained the DEA.
“People have to keep in mind that with all the synthetic drugs and the way they’re mixed together, you never know what you’re actually buying,” DEA intelligence analyst Maura Gaffney said in the press release.
So far, the spread of nitazenes remains relatively low, but “we want to spread this information and warn people,” said Jarod Forget, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Washington division.
“If we can educate and inform our communities about the dangers of taking counterfeit prescription drugs or other medications, we will stem the spread of these deadly opioids, stop all these senseless deaths, and help keep our neighbors and communities safe. our loved ones,” Forget said. in the statement.
According to the latest national data, drug overdoses in the United States hit an all-time high in 2021 – more than 108,000 lives lost. Three-quarters of those deaths involved synthetic opioids such as fentanyl or nitazenes.
The Tennessee study was published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a journal of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For more on opioids, see the US National Institute on Drug Abuse.
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