Deadly nitazene drug adverts on X and SoundCloud

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By William McLennan, Colin Campbell and Abby Newbery
BBC England Investigations

Thousands of posts offering deadly drugs known as nitazenes have been found on X and the music platform SoundCloud by a BBC investigation.

Nitazenes – more deadly then heroin – have recently been linked to nearly three deaths a week on average.

After we alerted SoundCloud, it removed the posts. X, formerly Twitter, took down hundreds but many listings remain.

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

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

It’s thought users often take them unknowingly – because they are hidden within other illegal substances by dealers looking to cut production costs.

Nitazenes have been found by a publicly funded testing lab in a range of drugs, including street heroin and black market pills which dealers had wrongly claimed contained anti-anxiety drugs, such as Xanax and Valium.

The SoundCloud adverts contained brief audio clips with the drug’s name and contact details appearing as the title of the track

Our evidence suggests dozens of suppliers are advertising openly on the internet and sending nitazenes in the post from China, where they are manufactured in laboratories.

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

The BBC investigation identified thousands of social media posts advertising the 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 just a few seconds, with the drug’s name and contact details appearing as the title of the trackmore 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 start of 2023one post from a supplier advertising on X in March 2024, who had been indicted and sanctioned in the US in September 2023 over the shipping of 15kg of nitazenes from China

Posing as a drug dealer, we contacted 35 suppliers – 14 of whom were advertising on SoundCloud, six advertising on X, and 15 whom we contacted via a website promoting wholesale chemical manufacturers. Thirty offered to post the drug to the UK.

The BBC did not actually buy any nitazenes.

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

Most adverts followed a pattern, containing the names and pictures of the nitazenes, contact details for secure messaging platforms and promises of secure shipping or customs clearance.

The New Drug Threat

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

Watch now on BBC iPlayer (UK Only)

The adverts appeared to target drug dealers, offering bulk purchases for the criminals to sell on in smaller batches.

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

The suppliers sent us videos and photos of the drugs, including kilogram bags on digital scales. Some explained they would evade customs by disguising the drugs in dog food and catering supplies. One supplier sent a video and pictures of a pristine laboratory where they claimed the drugs were made.

More than £4.2m in Bitcoin had been transferred into the cryptocurrency accounts of 19 of the suppliers within the past two years, our analysis found.

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, despite them never having been cleared for medical use anywhere in the world.

One supplier laughed as they explained how they used SoundCloud: “It’s a music platform but we can make an advertisement on it.”

Another supplier felt that X was “good to use” and was better for advertising drugs as, in their experience, they were less likely to get blocked on X than on other platforms.

Prof Vicki Nash, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, a department at the University of Oxford that researches online behaviour, says: “Finding adverts on this scale, hundreds, thousands of adverts, is horrifying with potentially a very significant risk to human life.”

She adds that the BBC’s investigation has uncovered how criminals have been “blatantly misusing” SoundCloud – hiding adverts in what appeared to be music tracks – in a way that can be found on search engines.

Adverts for nitazenes can also be found elsewhere online, but searching for 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 within a fortnight in Oxfordshire in 2021 after taking heroin laced with nitazenes.

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

The drugs have been linked to at least 101 deaths in the UK between 1 June 2023 and 22 February 2024 – equivalent to nearly 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 drugs in the UK – describes the BBC’s findings as “shocking.”

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

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It has never been established how Dylan, who had received treatment for addiction, bought what he thought was heroin. A coroner ruled he would likely have been unaware the drug contained a nitazene.

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

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

“How has that been allowed to happen?” she says. “How many people have died as a result of that being advertised there?”

‘Motivated by greed’

The Met Police shut down an illegal pill factory in west London that produced 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 heroin imported into the UK came from fields in Afghanistan.

Some experts believe a recent crackdown on production by the Taliban could be pushing criminals towards nitazenes. But that is not the opinion of Charles Yates of the NCA – who says that the agency is monitoring and testing drug supplies. He believes there is “no direct link” between the Taliban’s actions and the rising prevalence of synthetic opioids.

Instead, in most cases he believed criminals – whose “sole motivation is greed” – were using nitazenes because they are cheap.

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

In 2023, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) charged 11 Chinese companies over the sale of synthetic opioids, including nitazenes.

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

It is thought to be the first time police disrupted an organised criminal group distributing nitazenes in the UK.

The BBC has learned police found text messages on the gang’s phones after the raid in August 2022 which showed they had at first been reluctant to use nitazenes, but were pushed to use them by their China-based suppliers.

‘Unbelievably dangerous’

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 advised how much to put into pills that would be sold illegally in the UK.

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

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

Mike Trace, a former government drug tsar, says there is already an “overdose crisis” with nearly 5,000 drug deaths in England and Wales each year: “If nitazenes come into this market in a big way, that death rate could spiral and double or treble.”

Since 2021, nitazenes have been found 54 times in samples of pills being sold by dealers as anti-anxiety drugs including Xanax and diazepam. The data was compiled by Wedinos, a Welsh government-funded programme 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 with no tolerance for the drugs.

‘Worldwide epidemic’

Last month, 14 varieties of nitazene were made Class-A under the Misuse of Drugs Act, outlawing possession and increasing sentences for supply. The sale and importation of all nitazenes had already been outlawed in the UK under the Psychoactive Substances Act.

In China it is more complicated. Some have been outlawed by name, but new derivatives – which are being offered for sale online – do not appear to have been banned yet.

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

Nitazenes have emerged as attempts are made to cut the supply of fentanyl, another synthetic opioid, which has driven an overdose crisis in the US.

Authorities believe fentanyl – and chemicals that can be combined to make it – are also made in Chinese labs.

In November 2023, the US and China announced a renewed collaboration to crack down on the trade.

Previous co-operation between the two sides led to a number of breakthroughs including several convictions in China.

SoundCloud has said it and other social media platforms were “being targeted by bad actors” and it has promised to do “everything we can to tackle this worldwide epidemic”.

It says it uses both human moderation and software to identify and remove content that promotes drug sales, and “continues to evaluate and invest in best in class technology to aid in this effort”.

It has removed nearly 3,000 posts.

X has not responded to requests for comment. It removed hundreds of posts after being contacted by the BBC, but many still remained online four weeks later.

We contacted all 30 suppliers who offered to sell us drugs, to ask why they were providing illegal and dangerous products. Only six responded – all claimed they had never sent the drug to the UK.

The Home Office says there has been an “intensive operational effort to track down [nitazenes] and their suppliers – on the streets, at the borders and online”.

It says that the Online Safety Act, which became law last year, makes it clear tech companies “must do more to swiftly remove this type of content… and prevent users from being exposed to it”.

It adds that an enhanced “early warning system” which includes testing wastewater for the presence of synthetic opioids, would allow them to detect and respond to the drugs as quickly as possible.

Additional research by Laura Bunce

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20 March31 July 202317 September 2023


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