The drugs wreaking havoc across Northern Ireland

In 2020, 218 people lost their lives to drugs abuse in Northern Ireland - a record high

Drugs abuse has been increasing year-on-year in Northern Ireland.

In 2020, 218 people lost their lives to drugs abuse - a record high.

In recent years there has also been an increase in heroin and cocaine use. In many cases multiple drugs are involved.

The coroner has also seen a strong increase in the use and abuse of benzodiazepines. Something which is causing concern.

Drug origins

Joe McCrisken said the types of drugs he is seeing are changing on a regular basis, with the so-called designer drug becoming more prevalent.

He explains the origins of the drugs.

"They are synthetic benzodiazepines so these are drugs which we think were created as research chemicals in the 1970s.

"They weren't used by the pharmaceutical companies for whatever reason from the 1970s but the recipes seem to have been reused on an industrial scale and some of these recipes seem to have been modified into powder or pills and then finding their way to Northern Ireland to be abused.

"They are illicitly manufactured. They are very, very potent and they are very, very dangerous. Some of these drugs are 10 or 20 times the strength of normal benzodiazepines like diazepam and so these are very, very dangerous drugs."

Emergence of benzodiazepines

Indications suggest benzodiazepines were involved in three quarters of drugs deaths over the past six months.

"We're seeing the emergence of a new issue and a very worrying issue," Mr McCrisken added.

"Those people who seek to purchase and then abuse those synthetic benzodiazepines should be aware that they are very dangerous drugs, that they can't know where they are made.

"They can't know what strength they are and they can't know what the outcomes are likely to be. It's not possible because they are not being prescribed by GPs and they are not being made by legal manufacturers.

“They are taking their lives in their hands by consuming any of these synthetic benzodiazepines."

Poly drug use

The coroner, explains poly drug use - the consumption of a mixture of drugs. "I classify that as a death with two or more drugs but if you take deaths of three or more drugs, they have increased over the last five years to the extent that almost half of all drug deaths now involve three or more drugs.

"Over the last six months there have been a handful of deaths which have involved 10 or more drugs. That is a pattern which has been worrying for the last number of years but poly drug use is on the increase and we believe that that and other factors are behind the increasing death rate from drugs."

Trends in drug use

As for trends in specific drug deaths, the coroner says the picture is bleak and will only be resolved through a united approach involving various agencies..

"Deaths from heroin are on the increase. Deaths from cocaine are on the increase. Deaths from prescription drugs are on the increase and deaths from these new synthetic drugs are on the increase," says Joe McCrisken.

"The answer to the problem which is drug deaths is multi-factorial. There is no one thing which is going to fix the problem. This is about detection, enforcement, community involvement, health care so there are a lot of agencies and people who need to be involved."

He adds: "It's not just about the police arresting drug dealers or people who import drugs. It's not just about dealing with people who use or abuse drugs. It's not just about providing services. All of those things are the answer.

"People in the community know the scale of the problem in their own community. They know who's dealing drugs. Some members of the community probably know where these things are coming from, so we all have to get together. There's no one answer to this.”

The Public Health Agency has a range of services offering support for addiction. To find a service near you visit https://drugsandalcoholni.info/Mental health crisis helpline Lifeline can be contacted on 0808 808 8000.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.