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Tuesday 17 October 2017

Three held over drugs deaths in the North

Michael McHugh

THREE people have been arrested by police investigating eight suspected drug deaths in Northern Ireland.

They were detained in Belfast and the north west over a four-week period recently and were released pending further inquiries but investigators are not linking the deaths or the arrests.

No single drug was responsible and an officer leading the inquiry said the fatalities were not being treated as murder.

People aged mainly in their 20s and 30s died and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is still awaiting the results of forensics tests before reaching conclusions.

Drugs have killed almost 1,000 people in Northern Ireland over the last decade - a market now supplied by 150 organised gangs spanning Europe and beyond - and the senior investigator warned consumers were playing "Russian roulette" with their lives.

Detective Chief Superintendent Roy McComb said: "There is a sense that these eight people have died because of one bad batch, I want to dispel that myth."

He added there was no connection between those who died and no single cause.

"There is no consistent individual drug that we are finding linking any of these deaths, no single bad pill out there killing people," he said.

Last year nearly 1,400 people were charged with drugs offences - an increase of almost 16% on the year before. Police dismissed suggestions that they were not doing enough to tackle drugs in Northern Ireland when the "dogs on the street" knew who was responsible.

"We don't speak dog. If people know we would rather they picked up the phone and spoke to organised crime branch," M McComb added.

Stormont's Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson and Health Minister Edwin Poots were among those urging police to act.

With the end of Northern Ireland's 30-year conflict the drug gangs engaged in the supply chain have diversified from republican and loyalist paramilitaries to include Europeans and others further afield.

While the most common substance seized was cannabis, the trade in prescribed drugs has become a major problem and misuse of tranquillisers like Diazepam and anti-depressants kills more people than controlled drugs, police said.

Last year 110 people died through drugs and Mr McComb said three times more people were dying from prescribed medications than from heroin and ecstasy.

The number of ecstasy tablets seized annually has plummeted from 30,000 to 6,000 last year but the PSNI has issued an alert about ecstasy laced with a slower-acting bulking chemical which can prove even more deadly because abusers may take extra pills in the mistaken belief that they are weak.

A recent batch seized contained "Green Rolexes" - which can sell for a couple of pounds each - but the detective said all colours of tablets were potentially dangerous. They can cause convulsions and overheating, with people taking cold showers in their desperation to cool down.

The senior officer issued a stark warning.

"If you are mixing drink with any type of unprescribed medication you are buying over the internet that is a game of chance and the odds are not in your favour."

Other emerging drugs include so-called legal highs, manufactured legitimately for domestic purposes like pond cleaning but bought to be taken by party-goers.

The senior detective warned differences in the law between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and unhindered travel between jurisdictions helped suppliers to peddle their potentially lethal wares.

In the Republic so-called head shops which sell the substances are banned but that is not the case in Northern Ireland.

The chief superintendent added: "We need legislation to deal with the issue. There are many people out for a fast buck.

"People are selling products and they don't know if that person is going to be alive the next day."

He said there was no border for criminals and drug dealers, adding the obvious answer for a crime group faced with the Republic's legislation was to move its commodities into Northern Ireland where there is no comparable law.

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