Increasingly throughout 2010, observers of the UK heroin scene noticed signs of disruption in the normally well-supplied and efficiently administered UK market. From around September, it became clear that something unusual was taking place, and the following months confirmed the impression. By November, illicit heroin had become practically impossible to access, even in major distribution centres such as London and Liverpool. On the street, supplies sold as heroin were largely made up of inert bulking agents combined with substances such as paracetamol and benzodiazepines, the latter including extremely powerful sedatives such as alprazolam. John Ramsey, toxicologist at St George’s Hospital in South London, reported exceptional levels of demand for the testing of street heroin samples, while seasoned heroin users reported seeing nothing like it in drug-using careers spanning 30 years.

IDPC has been monitoring the situation closely, and began liaising across its global network of NGOs in order to ascertain to what extent the situation was local to the UK, or whether similar developments were taking place in continental Europe. This briefing paper provides an overview of the European situation, describes the responses of authorities and users, and analyses its possible causes and future development.