'Fatal' £10 drugs crisis young lads are falling victim to on Liverpool streets

“This young lad was subdued, tired and sleepy with blue lips.”

Robbie Dreha is recalling one of the many incidents in which he saw someone overdose. The 58-year-old, from Kirkby, has seen the aftermath of opioids on the human body more times than he would like through his career at YMCA Together.

The non-profit organisation, found on Leeds Street in the city centre, supports people experiencing challenging times, including homelessness, across Merseyside.

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However, Robbie claims in the last few years, the charity has been battling a new challenge - an opioid crisis on the streets of Liverpool.

He told the ECHO: “In one horrible incident, a young lad had taken drugs, came into the hostel, went straight to the lounge and overdosed. His partner came and got us and he was unconscious when we found him.

“We gave him naloxone - medicine that reverses opioid overdoses - and he came round for a little bit. But it only lasts 10 to 15 minutes before the opioids kick back in again so he kept going back over, back into overdosing again. He must have overdosed three times within the hour.

“He had really bad trouble breathing, his pulse was slow and his breaths were getting less frequent. It was rasping breath, similar to what people would call a death rattle.”

Robbie Dreha (middle) and the YMCA Together team
Robbie Dreha (middle) and the YMCA Together team who have saved just under 80 lives in the last few years -Credit:YMCA together

Opioids are a class of drugs that derive from, or mimic, natural substances found in the opium poppy plant. They can be smoked, injected or taken in tablet form and they work in the brain to produce a variety of effects including pain relief.

The drugs can be legally prescribed in the form of codeine and morphine to name a few but can also be found in the illegal drug, heroin. Robbie, a former outreach worker, said he has seen people buy a bag of heroin for £10 and a handful of opioid tablets for a “couple of pounds”.

The problem the YMCA Together report it is facing is that opioids are being mixed with nitazenes - a drug the BBC recently revealed was being smuggled into the UK inside dog food and catering supplies - by dealers to cut production costs. As a result of this, it is thought users often take the highly potent drug unknowingly.

Nitazenes were developed by researchers around 60 years ago as an alternative to morphine, but because of their high potential for overdose, they were never released.

YMCA Together team members learning how to use naloxone correctly
YMCA Together team members learning how to use naloxone correctly -Credit:YMCA together

Robbie said the majority of the time it is young men they are dealing with, however, this isn’t always the case.

Referring to an incident that happened in Fazakerley, he said: “Sometimes the overdoses can be sudden though. Another time, a young lady came into the room and collapsed in front of a group I was taking. She had taken benzodiazepines and some opioids as well. She had been injecting.

“There are a lot of synthetic opioids that are becoming readily available in the UK, particularly Liverpool. We’ve sorted incidents where nitazene, an opioid about 500 times stronger than a normal hit of heroin, has been taken.

“We’ve seen them being ordered from China and in different colours - say brown and blue - and this means dealers can adulterate them to suit the market. This is fatal stuff for people who come into contact with them.”

Robbie and his team have helped save 78 lives in Liverpool since 2021 by administering naloxone. The overdose antidote is a “critical tool” as it can mean the difference between life and death.

He added: "The synthetic opioids that are available now are getting stronger, so to have something available that quickly counteracts them makes such a difference. When you’re dealing with an incident, the adrenaline kicks in. It’s fight or flight and you got into auto-mode.”

YMCA Together's interventions highlight the “stark reality” faced by those in Merseyside who are struggling with the potentially deadly consequences of addiction.

Director of Public Health for Liverpool, Professor Matt Ashton, said: “There has always been a need for naloxone”.

The opioid antagonist is no longer held within the medical professionals and drug services alike but can now be made available to services and organisations with which those at risk may engage.

Liverpool's Director of Public Health Matt Ashton said a new integrated community addiction service was to be in place by April 2025
Opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone only works in the body for so long

He added: “Equipping them to respond early is vital. With the expansion of our naloxone provision, we expect to see increased instances where naloxone has been administered as our harm reduction messaging and training takes hold and our system comes together in an untied plight to prevent drug-related deaths where possible.

“The provision of naloxone forms a key part of our approach to minimising the harm that can result from drug use and addiction in our communities, which of course is a very serious issue.

“We are working with a wide range of local partners to reduce harm and this has led to the expansion of naloxone access to those who need it in as many settings as possible. This outstanding response from our YMCA partner is a testament to this approach and its success.”

The professor confirmed an “ambitious programme” including investment and plans for a new integrated community addiction service was to go live by April 2025. He claimed the plans would support the continued aim of drug-related harms and support “people in their recovery goals within the community”.

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