UK warned it could face opioid crisis unless it learns lessons from US

Ambassador William Brownfield Credit: ITV News

The UK has been warned of the potential for a drug crisis, like the one the US is currently facing with opioids like Fentanyl, spreading across the Atlantic unless lessons are learnt quickly.

According to Ambassador William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the US crisis "came on very suddenly and very unexpectedly" and the same could easily happen in Britain.

Speaking to ITV News' Julie Etchingham he said: "we are talking about a product which can very easily cross the Atlantic Ocean in a device as small as a business sized envelope, and carry a thousand doses".

He said: "Our experience suggests that Fentanyl moves very, very, quickly. Once criminal trafficking organisations figure it out, and determine both how low cost and how easy it is to transport, and how they are able to develop a market for it, it can move from a non-issue to a crisis in the shortest possible time."

He added: "I would suggest that from the British perspective you look at a country - we, ahead of any other, Canada, perhaps second to us at this point in time - and the experiences that we have had and the lessons that we have learned on dealing with Fentanyl.

"How to detect it, how to protect you own law enforcement and investigatory personnel as they deal with an incredibly toxic and illegal product, how to be aware when Fentanyl and its analogues are in fact the cause of death, how to educate the public as to how dangerous this is."

'Fentanyl moves very, very, quickly', US Ambassador Brownfield warned Credit: ITV News

Some 52,000 deaths in the US were reportedly attributed to opioid use in 2015 and these numbers appear to be rising year on year, prompting questions over what can be done to halt this unprecedented drug epidemic - and stop it spreading to other countries.

Ambassador Brownfield warned "three years ago this was a non-issue in the USA" and "today it's the worst drug crisis that we are confronting."

One US coroner told ITV News they were struggling to cope with the number of opioid deaths Credit: ITV News

To many it is the speed at which prescription opioids, heroin and Fentanyl have overtake cocaine and marijuana to become the US' three greatest drug challenges that is most alarming and makes it harder to tackle.

According to Ambassador Brownfield: "It is a battle in which we certainly are not winning. I would suggest it's a battle in which we are learning lessons in the most difficult way possible which is to say by the number of human lives lost."

What is the US opioids crisis and how could it affect the UK?

Opioids first came to prominence in the late 90s and early 2000s when US pharmaceutical firms reacted to demand for stronger faster acting pain relief drugs and lobbied to persuade doctors to prescribe synthetic forms of heroin for pain relief.

Because many people first became exposed to opioids after being prescribed by their doctor that means those hooked on the drug are not stereotypical addicts, many are middle class professionals.

The issue is that when prescriptions ran out, those who had become addicted to the drug turned to the streets to pick up cheaper and dangerous illegal substitutes and this created a black market.

Ambassador Brownfield explains that dealers "have taken what was basically a pure heroin product - which was fairly expensive to producer and transport -added Fentanyl analogues to it - which is extremely inexpensive to producer and transport - and now we have a crisis."

In the UK a couple of police forces have already become aware of Fentanyl as an issue on their patch and highlighted it as drug as potentially involved in drug overdose deaths.

Ambassador Brownfield says now it the time for the UK to halt any potential issues in their track.

He said: "We're talking about a situation in which in two years time, people might look back to you and say you were amazingly prescient in terms of identifying a problem before we realised the problem was here."