Nitazenes: America’s Next Risky Drugs of Abuse But Not the Last

In this rapidly shifting illicit drug market, law enforcement and communities struggle to keep up with the newest dangerous drugs on the market.

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Law enforcement and medical organizations have recently issued news reports warning the community about a new category of drugs on the illicit market: nitazenes. It should not be shocking to anyone associated with this field that there is a new type of drug circulating in our country. That’s because the last decade has seen one new drug after another hit the illicit market. It is apparent that this trend is going to continue for a long time.

What Are Nitazenes?

This is a group of chemically similar drugs that are all part of a larger class called novel synthetic opioids (NSOs). They have psychoactive effects similar to heroin. There are many of these drugs in circulation at the moment. Here are the main ones being detected in illicit drug supplies1:

  • Isotonoitazene
  • Brorphine
  • Metonitazene
  • Protonitazene
  • Etonitazene
  • Butonitazene
  • Etodesnitazene
  • Flunitazene
  • N-Pyrrolidinio etonitazene

The potency or strength of one of these drugs, N-pyrrolidinio etonitazene, is approximately ten times as strong as fentanyl, a drug that is so strong that it has been a death sentence for tens of thousands of people. N-pyrrolidinio etonitazene is also approximately 2,000 times as strong as morphine.

It is significant that there are now so many of these synthetic opioids on the market that they necessitated the development of the new category mentioned earlier: novel synthetic opioids or NSOs.

Nitazenes may be found as a powder or in the form of counterfeit prescription medication. It may also be a liquid and it is often combined with other illicit drugs such as heroin, fentanyl, or benzodiazepines2.

Where Do These Drugs Come From?

Chemical formulas and laboratory work on background

These and many other drugs have been resurrected from old patent and medicinal chemistry literature by chemists seeking to put a new drug on the market. This old patent documentation often reports the potency and efficacy of these drugs2 3.

Many of them never made it as far as animal or human clinical trials. Some did make it to human trials but ordinarily, undesirable side effects kept them from being marketed by pharmaceutical companies. However, criminal chemists and overseas pharmaceutical companies saw the potential for profit on the illicit market. They exhumed these old formulas and began to manufacture the drugs. Soon, the websites for these companies listed these new drugs for sale. They are often listed as “research chemicals”—for research only. But the companies will still ship a kilo or ten straight to your home.

Nitazenes (referred to in Europe as benzimidazole opioids) are simply the latest drugs to go through this metamorphosis.

Nitazines and other NSOs are a worldwide problem. The Drug Enforcement Administration refers to these drugs as “designer drugs.” Nitazenes have been on the illicit market since 2019 and appeared first in North America and Europe4.

Why Are We Seeing All These New Drugs on the Market?

The development of new drugs for the illicit market is a technique for evading law enforcement efforts to seize drugs and prosecute drug dealers. When there is a new formula on the illicit market, police and Drug Enforcement Administration agents may not be able to immediately seize those products as they may not be illegal at that moment. Legislators are constantly playing catch-up in this area, trying to pass new laws banning the sale and possession of these new substances. It is a never-ending game of cat and mouse that keeps law enforcement’s hands tied and drug users’ lives at risk.

Recently, international efforts to reduce the quantity of fentanyl (including carfentanil) on the market have been the trigger for illicit chemists to start producing nitazenes. These international efforts have emerged in both producer and consumer countries.

The Post-Fentanyl Era

Drug legislation, lawers at work

No matter what you hear the media talking about, we are actually in the post-fentanyl era. The media has not, by and large, caught up yet and keeps repeating the same messages they know people will respond to.

The word fentanyl actually refers to a large group of drugs. As noted by a report in Frontiers in Pharmacology, this group includes fentanyl, remifentanil, sufentanil, alfentanil, acetylfentanyl, acryloylfentanyl, α-methylfentanyl, carfentanil, cyclopropylfentanyl, and many others5.

Many of these formulas are much more potent than fentanyl itself which is already far more potent than heroin. Fentanyl is as much as 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. Carfentanil is 100 times stronger than fentanyl. Fentanyl, carfentanil and other drugs in this family are routinely found on the illicit market. It is easy to see why there are so many deaths associated with this group of drugs.

Any community efforts, messages or legislation that refers specifically to fentanyl will immediately be dated. No anti-drug messaging will last very long if it addresses a specific drug such as fentanyl.

Drugs now have a short life cycle. Here’s how it works:

  1. A new drug starts being manufactured and distributed.
  2. Law enforcement becomes aware of it and tests are developed to detect it.
  3. Legislation catches up with new drugs and laws are passed making them illegal to traffic or sell.
  4. The more deadly of these drugs gain reputations for being dangerous and buyers try to avoid them.
  5. Chemists begin to work on the next formula to be manufactured and trafficked.
  6. Soon that new drug is replaced by an even newer formula with a new name, referred to with new street slang.

A Rapidly Changing Illicit Drug Marketplace

In all, there are more than 930 new psychoactive substances being monitored around the world. (EMCDDA) There will always be a steady supply of criminals seeking to circumvent laws, and criminal chemists willing to manufacture new drugs for the illicit market6.

A forensic toxicologist named Barry Logan commented on the rapidity of change in the illicit market. He works with law enforcement to identify drugs seized on the illicit market.

Regarding his work to identify these drugs and issue reports on them, he said: “In the typical research cycle, if you’re funded to do a project, you set it up, you get your data, and at the end of a year or two years, you write up a report and it gets published. By that time in the cycle of these novel psychoactive substances drugs, that is ancient history.”

In today’s market, he must issue his reports immediately: “We do that by working with the Department of Justice, and every time we get a new substance, that notification goes out to literally tens of thousands of people around the world.”

The coming years will continue to present changing challenges to law enforcement, medical personnel, families and drug users around the world. Nitazenes are just the next chapter in this dangerous book. Families, community volunteers and drug rehab professionals should stay alert to this ever-changing landscape. The next drug to hit the community may be far worse than the last one.

At this time, the only safety is in avoiding drug use entirely. This points out the necessity to help an addicted person get to a drug rehab at the first moment possible that will help them break their dependence. There are absolutely no guarantees of health or even life if a person continues using drugs in this rapidly shifting environment.


  1. “Schedules of Controlled Substances: Temporary Placement of Butonitazene, Etodesnitazene, Flunitazene, Metodesnitazene, Metonitazene, N-pyrrolidino etonitazene, and Protonitazene in Schedule I.” Federal Register, 2021. Federal Register ↩︎

  2. “Old Drugs and New Challenges: A Narrative Review of Nitazenes.” National Library of Medicine, 2023. NLM ↩︎ ↩︎

  3. “NPS Focus: ‘Nitazene’ Synthetic Opioids.” Aegis Labs, 2021. Aegis Labs ↩︎

  4. “Nitazenes Infiltrate Illicit Drug Market. Practical Pain Management 2022.” Practical Pain Management ↩︎

  5. “Metabolic Pathways and Potencies of New Fentanyl Analogs.” Frontiers in Pharmacology, 2019. Frontiers ↩︎

  6. “New psychoactive substances – the current situation in Europe” (European Drug Report 2023). European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 2023. EMCDDA ↩︎


After a few years working at the Narconon center in Oklahoma, Karen has been researching drug trends around the world and writing reports and articles on addiction and recovery for nine years.
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