Fentanyl Adds Deadly Kick to Opioid Woes in Britain

A mural commemorating the fishing industry in Kingston upon Hull, England. Since the collapse of the fishing industry in the 1970s, the city has some of the highest unemployment and addiction rates in the country.

KINGSTON UPON HULL, England — There was something different in the batches of heroin that circulated through this English port city over the summer, but most addicts had no idea what it was until their friends and fellow addicts, 16 in all, had died of overdoses.

Those who tried the drug described a “warm,” “euphoric” high, followed by a sudden knockout effect, one that has killed dozens of Britons over the past year and left hundreds hospitalized.

The new kick came from fentanyl, an opiate painkiller 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, that was mixed in with the heroin. The drug has killed thousands of Americans, including the rock stars Prince and Tom Petty, but the lethal risk it poses has barely deterred addicts in Kingston Upon Hull, known familiarly as Hull. In fact, many of them cannot get enough of it.

“It makes all the pain go away,” said Chris, 32, a homeless resident of Hull who has been addicted to heroin for more than eight years.

Britain already has Europe’s highest proportion of heroin addicts, and last year, drug-related deaths hit a record high in England and Wales, with 3,744 deaths mainly from heroin and other opioids. While the scale is small compared with deaths in the United States — where more than 100 Americans die each day from opioid abuse — British authorities fear that fentanyl could become the country’s next most dangerous drug.

“People here are prescribed opioids for pain, but nothing to the extent of the U.S., where extremely potent opioids are being prescribed on a large scale,” said Dr. Prun Bijral, the medical director for Change, Grow, Live, a nonprofit organization that focuses on substance abuse. “On the one hand, this is positive. But on the other hand, the U.K. has one of the highest rates of drug-related deaths in Europe.”

No place has been hit harder by heroin, fentanyl and opioid addiction recently than Hull, a former fishing town of 260,000 people about 150 miles north of London that was improbably named Britain’s 2017 “City of Culture.” On a drizzly cold day last month, under a bright green sign welcoming visitors to the city, several addicts lay bundled up, stashes of drugs and alcohol secreted in blankets and other belongings. Others lined the doorways of nondescript buildings on the city’s main street.

Since the fishing industry collapsed in the 1970s, the city has suffered some of the highest rates of unemployment — currently 8.9 percent — and addiction in the country. The city’s easy transport links to the port and two major highways also facilitate drug trafficking.

In recent years, the city has started to bounce back with a series of investments, including a $400 million wind turbine facility and a $30 million research center that aims to develop new treatments for drug addicts.

But Hull continues to catch the most national attention for issues relating to drug abuse. And lately, those miseries have been compounded by fentanyl, which has been blamed for at least 60 deaths nationwide, the National Crime Agency said, and has emerged as a favorite of addicts like Chris.

On this gloomy day, he was lying in the doorway of a derelict building slumped over a plastic bag of his belongings, his hands furiously shaking.

Chris, who declined to provide his last name because he did not want his family to read about his addiction, said he first tried heroin when he was rejected for a job after two years in unemployment.

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Hull resident Mark Stevenson describes his experience with the drug.

“I got so hammered that I took my anger out on my girlfriend,” he said. “I smashed her head in the wall and just left her and went and bought heroin. I’ve been using ever since.”

When he first experienced fentanyl last year, he did not know what he had taken. “I took a shot and it felt like I exploded. It’s dynamite kind of strong,” he said, inadvertently describing why drug experts consider the drug so dangerous.

Several people in Hull who said they had collapsed after trying fentanyl vowed never to take it again. But there are still many like Chris who actively seek it out, even after a recent police crackdown slowed the supply coming into Hull.

Even though the police acknowledge the scope and severity of the problem, it was relatively easy, and inexpensive, for an addict to buy the drug, as an afternoon spent with Chris showed.

He spoke openly about his addiction, and explained that all the money he earned from begging — an average of $40 a day — was spent on drugs and alcohol. He receives free food at the local soup kitchen or through donations.

Out on the street, he occasionally stopped to ask people for money, but he had enough in his pocket to pick up his next stash, which he said cost 12 pounds, around $16.

After picking up the drug from his dealer, he went to the house of a friend, Billy Kenwood, who was also an addict but had stopped taking fentanyl after he nearly died from an overdose last year. As he recounted the incident, Chris busied himself preparing to shoot up — strapping his arm to find a vein, heating up the heroin mixed with fentanyl and finally injecting the liquid.

“There we go, bliss,” he said, before gradually starting to slump down in his chair.

“Some people go out like that after taking fenny and don’t wake up,” Mr. Kenwood said.

One homeless couple who sleep in the city center said they had lost at least six friends to fentanyl overdoses over the past year. They had both tried the drug, and like most other addicts and former users interviewed for this article, said they liked it.

But they also overdosed.

“I woke up in an ambulance and they told me I had taken fentanyl. They said if they got to me 2 to 3 minutes later, I would have died,” said Mark Stevenson, 45.

The couple say they have been clean from heroin and fentanyl for several months now, but many of their friends are addicted and have been suffering from severe withdrawal symptoms as supplies of fentanyl have grown scarcer in the recent crackdown.

“My friend was shooting four to five times more heroin to try and get the same effect as fentanyl,” Mr. Stevenson said.

Some drug gangs have reportedly started to make fentanyl in home labs to keep up with the demand. Britain accounts for the largest number of fentanyl sales on the limited access darknet in Europe, with 1,000 trades being made in recent months, research by the Oxford Internet institute found.

“There is money to be made. For a very small amount of drug you can get a lot of doses and lots of potential individual sales,” Dr. Bijral said.

An even more lethal opioid known as carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer 100 times stronger than fentanyl, has been cited in several recent fatal overdoses in Hull. Local people say the police carried out several operations in recent months in an effort to cut off the supply. But a former drug addict who lives in the area says that if people are seeking it, they can still find it.

In recent weeks, Hull’s local council boarded up a canopy that had provided shelter for several addicts in the city center, but said in a statement that support and accommodation options had been provided for the homeless people who had camped there.

Some of them have chosen to stay in hostels, while others are squatting in a derelict building with help from volunteers. But both facilities have zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol, and that has caused some to move away.

Chris has since left Hull and has not been seen in the city for over a month. “The fenny has dried up,” Mr. Kenwood said. “He’s gone up north to find some.”

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