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Rising imports of potent drug nitazene raises concern

The AFP and Australian Border Force (ABF) have issued a joint public warning over concerns that a dangerous illicit drug could be hitting Australian streets, following a rise in attempted imports of nitazene.

Authorities identified nitazene, an illicit and dangerous synthetic opioid considered to be equally or more potent than fentanyl, in a series of air and mail cargo detections at the Australian border last year.

ABF officers identified 22 detections of suspected nitazene imports within postal packages sent to Australia via mail cargo, originating from the United Kingdom (UK) in October, 2023.

From these detections, the AFP seized a total of 742 tablets confirmed to contain metonitazene. Prior to this, there have only been two other instances of the synthetic opioid detected by ABF.

Police charged a Northern Territory man for allegedly importing 5 grams of metonitazene through mail cargo from the UK to the Northern Territory last year.

The AFP launched the investigation after receiving a referral from the Commonwealth Agencies Operation Centre (CAOC) about a postal package destined for the Northern Territory that allegedly contained a synthetic opioid in October, 2023.

ABF officers in New South Wales examined an international mail consignment and allegedly found 5 grams of the illicit drug concealed in a vacuum-sealed package.

In another matter, authorities charged a Western Sydney man in August, 2023, after he allegedly attempted to import a variety of illicit drugs to sell online, including 97 tablets of an analogue of nitazene.

The drugs, which were allegedly sold on the dark web, were concealed in a variety of items, including cookware, toy cars and a blackjack set.

AFP Commander Paula Hudson said authorities had identified an increase in attempted imports of the drug throughout 2023 and anticipated further attempted imports in the future.

“This is why the AFP works closely with ABF and other partners to disrupt the illicit drug supply chain and protect the community from the serious harm and death these drugs can cause,” Cmdr Hudson said.

“Nitazenes were never approved for any therapeutic purpose due to their adverse effects and high risk of overdose due to potencies similar to or greater than fentanyl. If you choose to take this drug, the risk you are taking is your own life.”

“Nitazene can be presented in a variety of forms including powders, tablets, nasal sprays, and even vape liquids. They are often marketed and sold as cocaine, heroin, MDMA and counterfeit pharmaceuticals.

Commander Hudson said nitazenes were potent drugs that could cause overdose or death on their own or in combination with other illicit drugs.

“We are warning the community that there is no such thing as a safe dosage when it comes to this drug,” Cmdr Hudson said.

“The AFP and our partners will continue to target and disrupt criminals based locally and offshore who are importing these drugs, to ensure we can protect the Australian community.”

ABF A/g Commander Trade East Asha Patwardhan said that the ABF was deeply concerned about the potential for nitazenes to cause significant community harm in Australia.

“Our officers are highly trained at detecting illicit substance importations and the fact that we have begun to detect nitazene packages at the border is of great concern,” A/g Commander Patwardhan said.

“We stand alongside our AFP colleagues in wanting to make it clear that nitazenes are incredibly dangerous. The ABF will stop at nothing to prevent such illegal imports from making it to Australia.

“We will continue to target criminals who peddle in this illicit activity as we do all we can through our pre, post and at border intervention activities to protect the Australian community.”