New figures show increase in use of Fentanyl across UK

Increase in use of Fentanyl - UK

In the past couple of weeks, a number of government departments have released publications in direct relation to drug use and drug related deaths, and they make for alarming reading. The National Crime Agency and Office for National Statistics have each issued statistical publications highlighting different points, demonstrating the worrying growth of drug use across the UK, and in particular Fentanyl.

What is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent. It is a controlled Class A drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and typically used to treat patients with severe pain or to manage pain after surgery.

Its analogue, carfentanyl, is 10,000 times stronger and is used in veterinary procedures such as elephant tranquiliser. Opioid receptors are found in the areas of the brain that control the rate of breathing. High doses of opioids such as fentanyl can cause breathing to stop completely, which can ultimately lead to death. The high potency of fentanyl greatly increases risk of overdose, especially if a person who uses drugs is not aware that a powder or pill contains fentanyl. When sold on the street, it has been found that fentanyl has been mixed with heroin or cocaine, which drastically amplifies its potency and potential dangers.

Toxicology results

The National Crime Agency released figures showing how, upon looking at toxicology reports, 60 drug deaths in the UK in the past eight months have been attributed to fentanyl, with a further 70 suspected cases yet to be tested. Releasing the concerning figures, the NCA issued warning to drug users, friends and families to be careful, whilst recommending guidance issued by Public Health England.


In the US, fentanyl has become a serious problem with production and use widespread. Widespread opioid addiction has been attributed to the rapid rise in overdose deaths. It received international attention when the singer Prince was found to have died from a fentanyl overdose.

In the UK, the majority of drug overdoses thought to have involved fentanyl and carfentanyl are in the Yorkshire and the Humber region. Ian Cruxton, deputy director of the NCA has stated, “The threat of synthetic opioids is not new. However, since December 2016, we have seen a number of drug-related deaths linked to fentanyl and carfentanyl.” DS Patrick Twiggs of West Yorkshire stated that fentanyl came to the force’s attention roughly 6 months ago. He said, “The drug can be manufactured by anyone with a measure of chemical knowledge and the necessary equipment, but the main supply route is coming through the dark web, principally from China and Hong Kong.”

Wider problem

Despite the increasing problem of fentanyl in the UK, the Office for National Statistics has released figures which show how 3,744 people were killed by drug poisoning in 2016. When broken down by gender, the figures show how 2,572 men and 1,172 women were fatally poisoned by both legal and illegal drugs in England and Wales in 2016. The numbers for 2016 are 70 more than the previous year and the highest number since comparable statistics began in 1993.

UK mortality rates 1993-2016

Figure 1 – Mortality rates for selected substances, deaths registered 1993-2016

The graph above (Figure 1) shows the mortality rates for a range of selected substances from 1993-2016. It is clear that overall there has been an increase across substances displayed, with significant increase of mortalities in psychoactive substances over the past 10 years, and heroin/morphine witnessing an extreme rise in mortality rates over the comparable period.

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