The Nitazene boom? How the destruction of the Afghan poppy harvest could risk lives in Birmingham
Plus: The Dispatch celebrates 10,000 free subs!
Dear Patchers — welcome to your Monday briefing.
We are off to a banging start at Dispatch HQ this week with the news that we now have 10,000 wonderful (free) subscribers! Confetti cannons, streamers, and vuvuzelas are all going off with careless abandon, as you can imagine. Our free mailing list has reached this many readers twice as fast as it did in our sister paper in Manchester (not that it’s a competition of course). I think it shows just how much people want something different in Birmingham. It’s been barely 14 weeks since we began publishing but to have 10,000 people interested in what we are doing shows there is a huge appetite for a new kind of journalism. Better still, 338 of those have already made the jump to paid. You can join that (extra special) group and help support our mission by clicking the button below — welcome!
Catch up: On Wednesday, paying members received this detailed story in their inboxes, all about the Ringway Centre and the strong feelings (love and hate) that Brummies have for it. After all, one man’s brutalist masterpiece is another’s “rat infested asbestos riddled dump” (to quote one especially blunt Redditor). Despite Kevin McCloud’s best efforts, the building is now set for demolition. You can read it now by becoming a member at the link above.
Then on Sunday, our intrepid reporter/hooligan hunter Jack Walton went on a deep dive into the history of the Black Country derby — via last weekend’s eventual (to put it lightly) fixture. If you missed that one, read it here:
On to the week ahead. Today’s Big Story is about a concerning possibility: that some dangerous synthetic substances known as nitazenes could see a big uptick in drug-related mortalities in the West Midlands. I spoke with a Birmingham-based expert who first noticed the worrying trend. Your Monday edition also features an altercation between some protestors and an unnamed attendee at Labour’s mayoral campaign launch on Sunday, and, further down, our things to do section is heavy on comedy which is hopefully a sign of a fun-filled week to come.
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🌥️Wednesday: Bright and dry with some patchy frost. A bit cloudy. Max 6°
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❄️Friday: Breezy and unsettled with the potential for snow flurries. Max 5°.
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Big story: The Nitazene boom? How the destruction of the Afghan poppy harvest could risk lives in Birmingham
Top line: Synthetic opioids known as nitazenes are expected to cause a spike in drug-related deaths in Birmingham, a worrying effect of Europe’s heroin supply drying up.
Nita-what?: Nitazenes are a type of synthetic opioid that are 100 times stronger than heroin and 50 times stronger than fentanyl. They were first made by illicit chemists in China who were circumventing the 2019 crackdown on fentanyl manufacturing. The drug is being cut with heroin and sold online disguised as benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium.
Zoom in: Birmingham saw some of the first confirmed nitazene-related deaths in the country. In October 2021 and January 2022, three young men — two students and an entrepreneur — died from the drug. None were heroin users. According to Dr Judith Yates, all three bought what they thought were oxycodone pills online.
On the rise: Dr Yates is a retired Birmingham GP who has collated drug-related deaths since 2009. She identified the emergence of nitazenes, describing the three deaths to the BBC in 2022 as “out of the blue”. Last month, the Guardian reported that:
65 people have died from taking nitazenes in the UK in the last six months.
In November, the Metropolitan police seized approximately 150,000 tablets containing nitazenes from a factory in north-east London.
Zoom out: Synthetic opioids like fentanyl have been driving the US opioid epidemic for several years. However, their increasing presence in the UK is down to the fact the Taliban — in line with the United Nation’s wishes — destroyed the poppy harvest last Spring. Some 95% of Europe’s heroin supply comes from Afghanistan, so nitazenes have plugged an emerging gap.
Fewer poppies, more deaths? Dr Yates told The Dispatch that she and her associates in the UK and abroad were “holding our breath” in the hope the current ban would be temporary. But her sources in Afghanistan say the poppy seeds have not been resown. The current crop of poppies is due to run out by summer. That will likely mean more nitazenes flooding the market.
‘Severely undercounting’: 16 of the 30 nationwide deaths due to nitazenes have occurred in Birmingham but Dr Yates says she fears we are “severely undercounting”. Birmingham City Council has now commissioned Liverpool John Moores University, which already tracks drug-related deaths across the north-west, to pick up on Yates’ work.
Bottom line: Geopolitical shifts have created the conditions for a gap in the opioid market — a gap that is being filled by nitazenes. With the Afghan poppy supply set to run out without a new harvest, the signs suggest this could get worse. We’ll stay in touch with Dr Yates and keep track of developments in this concerning story.
Photo of the week
This atmospheric shot of Union Passage in Birmingham City Centre, leading down to the Britannia Hotel on New Street, was taken by Connor Pope. When I was checking the location, I came across this interesting Passages and Alleyways of Birmingham thread on the Birmingham Forum website, with 44 pages of photos, maps and historical tid-bits. A good one for all the other procrastinators out there.
Brum in brief
🌟 Opheem is the first restaurant in Birmingham to win two Michelin stars! Simpson's, Purnell’s, and Adam’s have all retained their prestigious awards. It seems, however, that the news hasn’t gone down well in Manchester where the ceremony was held. Rumours were swirling that the northern city was due two new awards — but it failed to win either. An attendee was overheard saying: “Seems funny to bring everyone up to Manchester and then give yet another star to Birmingham”.
🥊 There were feisty scenes as Labour mayoral hopeful Richard Parker launched his campaign on Sunday at South and City College in Digbeth. As volunteers, councillors, and a couple of MPs gathered to support Parker, Pro-Palestine demonstrators outside claimed a man entering the event told them “to fuck off”. However, a spokesperson for Parker said he thought the man had been accidentally knocked in the head by one of the protestor’s megaphones. The incident is sure to go down in history alongside that time John Prescott punched an egg-thrower in Wales.
📅 Birmingham City Council’s big monthly meeting for February takes place tomorrow from 2pm. On the agenda is: an internal probe into council governance; the annual review of councillor allowances; a debate on an inquiry into the equal pay crisis; and a debate on allowing taxis to use bus lanes. You can attend in person or watch the webcast here.
🏎️ The West Midlands is seeing an unfortunate trend of wannabe Lewis Hamiltons, with weekly street racing events involving more than 200 cars at a time on the rise. The gatherings are “exceeding 100mph on busy roads across the region and drawing hundreds of spectators” The Guardian reports.
💰 One man probably not doing 100mph on the local roads though, is Rob Richards. Richards — who lives in Quinton, near Birmingham — was bombarded with more than 100 motoring fines and chased by bailiffs repeatedly over the penalties. The only thing is, Richards doesn’t drive. The BBC also spoke to other Birmingham natives about the scam. The government urges victims of car registration fraud to contact the DVLA.
Home of the week
We love the floor-to-celing windows and glass panelled doors in this three bedroom duplex flat in Selly Oak. It is available now for £120,000.
📰 Anthony Madu, the so-called Nigerian Billy Eliot, has spoken to The Times as he enters his third year at Elmhurst Ballet School in Edgbaston. The 14-year-old dancer went viral while practising his pirouettes on the streets of Lagos and was offered places at several of the world’s top dance academies. The comparison means little to him though. “I’ve been trying to watch Billy Eliot for a really long time,” Anthony shrugged. “But I’ve never been able to find it.
📰 Iconic 80s fashion designer and Birmingham resident Patti Bell, who sadly died last week, has been celebrated in this excellent read by the BBC. Alongside stunning archive photographs of Bell, her collaborators, and her designs, singer and songwriter Maggie K de Monde reflects on Bell’s presence in the city 40 years ago: “People always used to say she was the Queen Bee of the Birmingham scene, and she had such a fantastic entourage, you know. They looked like a bunch of peacocks."
📽️ After we published our weekend read all about sci-fi writing legend John Wyndham and the eerie experience of visiting his birthplace of Dorridge, a Dispatch reader and film director got in touch to share their award-winning short film based on Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos. Brendan O’Neill’s The Harrowing is a four-minute long, cliff-hanging folk-horror that he intends to develop into a feature-length film.
Things to do
🎤 Edinburgh Festival Best Newcomer winner Urooj Ashfaq appears at The Rep at 8pm with her show Oh No! The Times called her “electrifying” and now you can find out for yourself. Tickets are £16 and limited.
🎤 There is one seat left for Frankie Boyle’s show Lap of Shame at the Warwick Arts Centre. If that’s up your street and you don’t mind going alone, hurry now. It will set you back £30.50.
🎵 Listen to lectures and watch performances of piano-playing styles of the 19th Century at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire throughout the day. The event is day four of a conference and tickets are £20.
📽️ If you know any filmmakers between the ages of 16 and 25, let them know about this meet up at the Mockingbird Cinema in Digbeth. You can also email in if you’d like them to screen your work.
🎵 Celebrate the Lunar New Year with Chinese pianist Di Xiao at this free gig at the University of Birmingham’s Elgar Concert Hall from 7pm.
🎤 And more comedy to round this week off — Dave Bibby’s Baby Dinosaur won the Most Fun Show at Edinburgh and you can see him perform it at the Old Joint Stock at 8pm. Tickets £14.