Will Helstrip was 18 when his life was cut short in May this year. He had taken a new, ultra-potent synthetic opioid called n‑pyrrolidino etonitazene. At the moment, it’s legal to possess in the UK. It’s also outrageously strong.
“It’s seen as 20 times more potent than fentanyl,” scientists from DrugScience explained to THE FACE during a Microsoft Teams meeting this week. And with fentanyl anywhere from 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin, that makes for a drug of staggering strength.
Taking such a strong drug was not the plan when Will logged onto the dark web to make his purchase. He knew what he was doing technologically – he was a professional software developer described by members of his family as “a computer genius”. But when the drugs arrived in the post, instead of taking what he thought was a benzodiazepine to help him sleep, he inadvertently consumed an ultra-strong synthetic opioid.
The initial inquest into his death, which took place last month in Hull, heard that it’s “understood he would have ordered what he believed was a Valium-type drug on the dark web”. He was self-medicating using benzodiazepines after suffering trauma and insomnia relating to being bullied. “Will faced challenges from day one as he was born with a cleft lip and palate,” his mum, Ruth Helstrip, explained to Hull Daily Mail. “As he moved to secondary school, life seemed to get increasingly difficult for him. Years seven and eight were marred by constant bullying.”
So, what exactly is n‑pyrrolidino etonitazene?
The nitazene class of opioids were originally developed in the 1950s during research into pain relief medicine. They were found to have strong opioid effects but were never marketed as a drug. Yet despite their long history, they’ve only recently arrived on the street drug market. “It’s fair to say it’s new,” says Guy Jones, Senior Chemist at The Loop. “The nitazene class of drugs probably realistically emerged in a serious way in about the last year or two.”
“I think it’s seeing increased popularity because it is not yet controlled in the countries where these drugs are produced [mainly China and Mexico],” continues Jones. “That tends to be the biggest factor in whether or not we see them being sold in the UK, Europe and North America.”
Nitazenes exist in a legal grey area in the UK. “At the moment it’s not illegal to possess,” the scientists at DrugScience note. “Because they’re psychoactive substances, they fall under the Psychoactive Substances Act . That means that it’s illegal to supply something, but it’s not actually illegal to possess.” Last July, the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs reviewed this and recommended that possession of nitazenes should be controlled.
For drug traffickers, the appeal of synthetic opioids is simple.
“In a crime movie you see these big bags of heroin,” say DrugScience. “Well, if you’ve got something that’s 100-fold more potent, it’s just a tiny bag, and you can send it by FedEx. If you send 100 packages, maybe 70 will get through. It’s more attractive to the suppliers.”
At the same time, the opium poppy is no longer the required starting point for this kind of opioid. Why grow a field of poppies and risk importing such a bulky item when you no longer need to? But the obvious losers in all this are the opioid users on the street, with their risk of accidentally overdosing rising significantly.
Then there’s the geo-political factor. In May 2019, the Chinese government banned the production and sale of fentanyl and its precursor chemicals. This led to manufacturers significantly reducing their activities – probably a sensible approach in a country that executes drug traffickers. But it also resulted in them moving on to other synthetic opioids. Enter n‑pyrrolidino etonitazene.
That’s how a drug 140 times stronger than heroin has made its way onto British streets. This isn’t a story about a terrifying new drug sweeping the nation. It’s a tragic tale about misidentifying drugs.
“I think this could be a case of misidentifying a drug and that has been the key cause of the death,” says Guy Jones. “[Will] thought he was taking one thing but he’s actually taking a completely different drug, from a completely different class of chemicals, with a significantly different set of effects and risks. And [even] if he’s got a tolerance to benzodiazepines, that is not going to protect him if it’s a different class of drugs.”
Will wasn’t just the victim of a thoroughly nasty drug. He was also the victim of counterproductive drug laws. His death acts as a powerful reminder that when a society places drugs into the context of prohibition, that policy makes them more dangerous than ever. In an imaginary world where recreational drugs were regulated, he might have read a label on the packaging and realised he’d picked up the wrong product.
This also compounds the need for front-of-house drug testing at festivals and in the night time economy. If Will had access to a drug-checking service, he perhaps could have realised his error before it was too late. Such services are still difficult to access, but it’s not impossible. You can submit drug samples via the post to WEDINOS, a Welsh harm reduction outfit, and they will publish the results online. (Instructions on how to do so can be found here.) Last May, The Loop announced that it would be providing testing in Bristol City Centre. This is the first time that the Home Office has granted a licence to a regular drug-checking service in the UK. A small step in the right direction, at least.
“Despite everything, he never stopped telling me he loved me,” Will Helstrip’s mum told the inquest. “Now I’m not going to hear that anymore.” To prevent other mums, family members, partners or friends experiencing this needless loss, here’s a stark reminder – another one – of why our drug laws, and our approaches to drug regulation, need to change.
Today, The Loop has announced that it has been granted charity status by the Charity Commission. “The Charity Commission undertook a comprehensive legal review of [The Loop’s] activities and determined drug checking as a legal and charitable activity in the UK,” the organisation wrote in a press release.