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Article United Kingdom: Synthetic Opioids to Be Banned

On February 3, 2023, the government of the United Kingdom announced its intention to introduce regulations to designate synthetic opioids as a class A drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The announcement was based on recommendations from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which were published in response to requests the government made after seeing the drugs linked to a rise in fatal overdoses in other countries.

The ACMD found that 2-benzyl benzimidazole (nitazene) opioids, which are “synthetic opioids and can be prepared in only a few steps from readily available, uncontrolled precursors,” and piperidine benzimidazolone opioids both “have highly potent heroin-like effects where use carries a high risk of potentially fatal overdose.” The ACMD further determined these drugs “have the potential to cause severe harm and pose a significant threat to the public.”

The ACMD stated that while the drugs are subject to the provisions of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, which criminalizes importing, supplying, and possessing the drugs with intent to supply, they were not controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The ACMD noted this is inconsistent with the approach taken for other potent opioids, such as heroin, morphine, and fentanyl. Subsequently, the ACMD recommended that the drugs be controlled as a Class A drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and, as they currently have no known legitimate medical use, recommended the drugs also be added to schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 to be “consistent with the position of other similar compounds.”

The ACMD modeled its recommendations for the generic control of these compounds on the system present in Germany to try to “avoid inadvertently including materials of legitimate pharmaceutical interest which happen to include a 2-benzyl benzimidazole or piperidinyl benzimidazolone components within their chemical structure.” The use of generic controls are designed to “‘future-proof’ the legislation by covering known and predicted variants which appear likely to present a significant risk to health.”

The government accepted these recommendations and announced it will introduce regulations to add the following drugs to class A of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971:

  • Butonitazene.
  • Etodesnitazene (etazene).
  • Flunitazene.
  • Isotonitazene.
  • Metodesnitazene (metazene).
  • Metonitazene.
  • N-Desethylisotonitazene.
  • N-Piperidinyl-etonitazene (etonitazepipne).
  • N-Pyrrolidino-etonitazene (etonitazepyne).
  • Protonitazene.
  • Brorphine.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 controls dangerous and harmful drugs in Great Britain and provides for a three-tier system of classification — A, B, and C — according to their level of harm to individuals or society at large when misused, with A being considered the most harmful. Once these drugs are included in the Misuse of Drugs Act, their possession will be illegal and possession with intent to supply will be punishable with up to life imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.

Claire Feikert-Ahalt, Law Library of Congress
March 6, 2023

Read more Global Legal Monitor articles.

Updated March 6, 2023, to correct the reference to the punishable offense in the article’s final sentence.

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