Deadly nitazene drug adverts on X and SoundCloud, BBC finds

  • By William McLennan, Colin Campbell and Abby Newbery
  • BBC investigations in England

Thousands of messages offering deadly drugs called nitazenes have been discovered on X and the music platform SoundCloud thanks to a BBC investigation.

Nitazenes – deadlier than heroin – have recently been linked to almost three deaths a week in the UK on average.

After alerting SoundCloud, it deleted the posts. X, formerly Twitter, has removed hundreds, but many lists remain.

SoundCloud said it had been “targeted by bad actors” while X did not respond to requests for comment.

Nitazenes, illegal in the UK, are synthetic drugs produced in a laboratory. They are similar to heroin and morphine, but can be several hundred times more powerful.

It is believed that users often consume them unknowingly, because they are hidden in other illegal substances by dealers looking to reduce production costs.

Nitazenes were found by a state-funded testing laboratory in a range of drugs including street heroin and black market pills that traffickers said contained anti-anxiety drugs such as Xanax and Valium .

Legend, The SoundCloud ads contained brief audio clips with the drug’s name and contact information appearing as the track title.

Our evidence suggests that dozens of suppliers are openly advertising on the Internet and mailing nitazenes from China, where they are manufactured in laboratories.

There are many varieties of nitazene, with different chemical structures and potencies. The BBC discovered more than a dozen types of nitazenes advertised under their different chemical names.

The BBC investigation identified thousands of social media posts advertising these drugs, including:

  • nearly 3,000 posts on SoundCloud, some dating back a year – posts on the music streaming service contained brief audio clips, often lasting only a few seconds, with the name and contact details of the drug appearing as the title of the track
  • more than 700 posts on X – the oldest had been on the platform for more than 18 months, but the vast majority of posts had been published since the beginning of 2023
  • a message from a supplier advertising on X in March 2024, who had been indicted and sanctioned in the United States in September 2023 for shipping 15 kg of nitazenes from China

Posing as a drug dealer, we contacted 35 suppliers – 14 of whom advertised on SoundCloud, six on X, and 15 of whom we contacted through a website promoting wholesale chemical manufacturers. Thirty of them offered to ship the drugs to the United Kingdom.

The BBC did not actually purchase any nitazene.

The majority of vendors claimed to work for companies that otherwise appeared legitimate, with professional websites and business addresses in Chinese cities.

Most of the advertisements followed a template containing the names and photos of the nitazenes, contact details for secure messaging platforms, and promises of secure shipping or customs clearance.

An investigation into the growing illicit trade of a deadly new type of drug called nitazenes.

The ads appeared to target drug dealers, offering bulk purchases to criminals to resell in small batches.

While we found evidence that traffickers in the US and UK are using social media to connect with suppliers, we have no evidence of individual drug users doing this.

Suppliers sent us videos and photos of the medications, including one-kilo bags on a digital scale. Some said they would evade customs by hiding the drugs in dog food and catering supplies. One supplier sent video and photos of a pristine lab where he claimed the drugs were made.

More than £4.2 million in Bitcoin has been transferred to the cryptocurrency accounts of 19 of the providers over the past two years, according to our analysis.

Legend, X removed hundreds of adverts after being contacted by the BBC

In secretly recorded video calls, our undercover reporter was repeatedly reassured by suppliers that the drugs were safe, even though they had never been authorized for medical use anywhere in the world.

One vendor laughed when explaining how he used SoundCloud: “It’s a music platform but we can advertise on it.”

Another vendor rated X as “good to use” and was better for drug advertising because, in their experience, it was less likely to be blocked on X than on other platforms.

Professor Vicki Nash, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, a department at the University of Oxford which studies online behavior, said: “Finding adverts on this scale, hundreds, thousands of adverts, is horrifying and potentially represents a very significant risk to human life. ”

She adds that the BBC investigation revealed how criminals “blatantly abused” SoundCloud – hiding adverts in what appeared to be music tracks – in a way that can be found on search engines .

Advertisements for nitazenes can also be found elsewhere online, but searching the names of various nitazenes on other mainstream social media platforms returned only a handful of posts or led to safety warnings.

When nitazenes enter a local drug supply, it can quickly prove fatal. Four men died in a fortnight in Oxfordshire in 2021 after using heroin laced with nitazenes.

Legend, Claire Rocha’s son Dylan died in 2021 – one of the first deaths in the UK linked to nitazene-contaminated medicines

Drugs have been linked to at least 101 deaths in the UK between June 1, 2023 and February 22, 2024 – which equates to almost three deaths per week – according to the National Crime Agency (NCA).

Claire Rocha – whose musician son Dylan, 21, was one of the first deaths linked to nitazene-contaminated medicines in the UK – calls the BBC’s findings “shocking”.

Dylan, whose band was due to tour the UK before the Covid pandemic, was found dead at his home in Southampton in 2021. Ms Rocha described him as a “musical genius”.

It was never established how Dylan, who had been undergoing drug treatment, purchased what he thought was heroin. A coroner ruled he probably did not know the drug contained nitazene.

Dylan used SoundCloud to share his music, but there is no evidence he purchased drugs through the site. A toxicologist found her death was caused by a combination of nitazene, heroin and alcohol.

Ms Rocha says it was “absolutely crazy” that thousands of ads were posted on SoundCloud and X.

“How could this happen? she says. “How many people died because of this ad?” »

“Motivated by greed”

Legend, The Met Police closed an illegal pill factory in west London which was producing hundreds of thousands of counterfeit Xanax pills in 2022.

Other opioids, including heroin and morphine, are made from poppy plants – and at one time most of the heroin imported into the UK came from fields in Afghanistan.

Some experts believe the Taliban’s recent crackdown on production could push criminals toward nitazenes. But that’s not the view of the NCA’s Charles Yates, who says the agency monitors and tests drug supplies. He believes there is “no direct link” between the actions of the Taliban and the increasing prevalence of synthetic opioids.

Instead, in most cases, he believed that criminals – whose “only motivation is greed” – used nitazenes because they are cheap.

The agency is working with the police, Border Force and international partners to ensure “all lines of inquiry are prioritized and vigorously pursued in order to stem any supply of nitazenes to and within the UK”, he adds.

In 2023, the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) indicted 11 Chinese companies for selling synthetic opioids, including nitazenes.

Following a tip-off from the DEA, the Met Police shut down an illegal pill factory in west London which was producing hundreds of thousands of counterfeit Xanax and other benzodiazepine pills, which also contained the powerful nitazene.

It is believed to be the first time police have broken up an organized crime group distributing nitazenes in the UK.

The BBC has learned that police found text messages on the gangs’ phones after the August 2022 raid, which showed they had initially been reluctant to use nitazenes, but were pressured to use them by their suppliers based in China.

“Incredibly dangerous”

Legend, Dealers sent Whatsapp messages to our undercover buyer

In Whatsapp messages to our undercover buyer, many suppliers offered discounts on bulk purchases and some even indicated how much to put into pills that were allegedly being sold illegally in the UK.

But Caroline Copeland, a lecturer in pharmacology and toxicology at King’s College London, says the drugs are so powerful that it is difficult to measure a safe dose.

“I don’t think there’s even a safe dose,” she adds.

Mike Trace, a former drugs tsar, says there is already an “overdose crisis” with almost 5,000 drug deaths each year in England and Wales: “If nitazenes arrive en masse on this market, this mortality rate could skyrocket and double, or even double. triple.”

As of 2021, nitazenes have been found 54 times in samples of pills sold by dealers as anti-anxiety medications, including Xanax and diazepam. The data was compiled by Wedinos, a Welsh Government-funded program which tests anonymous samples from across the UK.

Experts say this increases the risk of overdose, with users unknowingly taking powerful opioids, potentially for the first time and without any tolerance for the drugs.

“Global epidemic”

Last month, 14 varieties of nitazene were classified as Class A under the Misuse of Drugs Act, banning possession and increasing penalties for supply. The sale and import of all nitazenes was already banned in the UK under the Psychoactive Substances Act.

In China, it is more complicated. Some have been specifically banned, but the new derivative products, offered for sale online, do not yet appear to have been banned.

Legend, Suppliers said they would evade customs by hiding the drug in dog food

Nitazenes emerged amid attempts to reduce the supply of fentanyl, another synthetic opioid, which…

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