European Drug Report 2017

The European drug situation in 2017

Highly potent synthetic opioids: a growing health threat

In both Europe and North America, the recent emergence of highly potent new synthetic opioids, mostly fentanyl derivatives, is causing considerable concern. Since 2012, the EU Early Warning System has been receiving an increasing number of reports of these substances and of harms caused by them. These substances have been sold on online markets, and also on the illicit market. They have sometimes been sold as, or mixed with, heroin, other illicit drugs and even counterfeit medicines.

Highly potent synthetic opioids present serious health risks

Highly potent synthetic opioids present serious health risks, not only to those who use them, but also to those involved in their manufacture, as well as postal workers and law enforcement officers. With only small volumes needed to produce many thousands of doses, these substances are easy to conceal and transport. This poses a considerable challenge for drug control agencies. At the same time, they present a potentially attractive and profitable commodity for organised crime.

In Europe, problems related to highly potent synthetic opioids appear to be growing, as indicated by increasing reports of non-fatal intoxications and deaths received by the Early Warning System. In early 2017, the EMCDDA carried out risk-assessment exercises on the fentanyl derivatives acryloylfentanyl and furanylfentanyl. These substances are being considered for control at European level, and a number of other drugs in this category are currently under scrutiny.