A deadly new drug has been found for sale in Northern Ireland.
The strong painkiller fentanyl has been found mixed in heroin seized by the PSNI.
Police believe it was linked to two deaths in Northern Ireland and more than 60 in the rest of the UK this year.
There are concerns that a variant called carfentanil, used to tranquilise elephants, could also be mixed in drugs sold here.
Fentanyl is 100 times more powerful than heroin and has a number of medical uses, including pain relief after major surgery.
Mixing it with heroin or cocaine intensifies the potency and addictiveness, and also increases the user’s risk of dying.
Stan Brown, chief executive of Forensic Science Northern Ireland, said the development has caused alarm.
Mr Brown said prescription drugs, as well as heroin, cocaine and amphetamines, are the drugs most commonly abused.
He said there has been an increase in psychoactive substances and they have unpredictable properties.
Of the new psychoactive drugs, the most lethal are fentanyl and carfentanil.
“These are literally elephant tranquilisers 10,000 times more powerful than heroin, very dangerous things to see in anything that someone’s taking,” said Mr Brown.
“In the last few months, we’ve started to see this in drug seizures in Northern Ireland.
“Just a tiny quantity can kill and the user has no way of knowing that it is actually in drug they are taking.”
Made in China
Carfentanil has not yet been detected in drug seizures here.
But the PSNI has confirmed that fentanyl has reached Northern Ireland.
In a statement, Det Supt Bobby Singleton said it posed a significant risk to those who come into contact with it, and that police suspect it may have been a contributory factor in a small number of deaths.
“Police will continue to target drug dealers and those in the supply chain in Northern Ireland to try and remove this danger from society,” he said.
“However, this is not a problem that police can solve alone. We can tackle the symptom and will continue to work with our partners in other sectors including health and education to address the wider causes.”
Stan Brown said a lot of synthetic drugs like fentanyl were being manufactured in China and then shipped to Europe.
“They are so potent that even touching equipment contaminated with the drug can be fatal.”
Forensic Science Northern Ireland has introduced new safety measures to protect staff testing drug seizures at its lab at Seapark near Carrickfergus.
Scientists will have to work alongside a colleague who will have antidote ready to administer in case there is accidental contact.