Heroin being smuggled into the UK from Afghanistan is being contaminated with a drug 500 times stronger than morphine, the National Crime Agency has revealed.

The NCA is targeting drug networks that mix isotonitazene into batches of heroin brought to Britain from Afghanistan.

Isotonitazene is a synthetic opioid that is ‘comparable in strength to fentanyl’.

It is 500 times stronger than morphine and its presence in contaminated batches of heroin is thought to be behind a recent rise in drug poisonings and deaths in parts of the UK.

NCA Director of Investigations Nikki Holland said: ‘In terms of Afghanistan, now the Taliban have control it has led to lots of speculation regarding how this might affect the heroin trade and in turn impact upon the UK.

‘This coincides with a recent spike in drugs poisonings which have come from heroin adulterated with isotonitazene, which is comparable to strength with fentanyl, across various regions within the UK, which has resulted in a number of deaths.’

A similar spate of contamination occurred in 2017, when the NCA said it had prevented ‘large scale loss of life’ after identifying batches of heroin spiked with the drug fentanyl that had been bought over the dark web.

Keith Rawson, drugs threat lead for the NCA, said: ‘Drug dealers, heroin suppliers, (have) little regard for the people that they exploit and to boost profits, boost stockpiles, dealers have been known to contaminate the UK heroin supply with high strength synthetic opioids much stronger than heroin, which increase instances of fatal overdoses.’

UK law enforcement remains sceptical about Taliban pledges to crackdown on opium production in the country.

Opium farming continued in Taliban-controlled regions of the country in the past, and the drug can be dried and stored for long periods of time.

The NCA previously had operatives based in Afghanistan working with the country’s police, but they have had to leave since the Taliban takeover.

Demand in the UK heroin market, the largest in Europe, remains relatively stable at around 38 tonnes per year, around a third of the size of the cocaine market.

However, there are three times more opiate-related deaths per year than those associated with cocaine.

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