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Cocaine deaths go up “astronomically” in Northern Ireland: Heroin and ‘drug-mixing’ deaths also soar

Toxicology reports have shown that a rising number of people in Northern Ireland are dying having consumed up to 10 drugs at once, according to Coroner Joe McCrisken.

The Northern Ireland Coroner said that heroin-related deaths are now “the highest we have ever seen,” while cocaine deaths are up by a staggering 1,000 per cent in five years. 

Mr McCrisken said ‘designer’ drugs are also on the rise. Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, he told the paper that benzodiazepines, a class of drugs that can treat a range of conditions and are prescribed to treat anxiety, seizures and insomnia, are involved in 75 per cent of drug deaths across Northern Ireland. Mr McCrisken shared that one in three drug deaths in the North are being caused by anti-anxiety drugs.

Sharing his concern with the paper, the Northern Ireland Coroner said he expected the death rate from drug misuse to rise, stating: 

“I am as concerned as I have ever been. Given what we have seen over the past 10 years, I would expect the death rate from drug misuse in 2021 and 2022 to rise. There are now more deaths than before.”

He said that heroin is now “the main drug that is causing most deaths”, also adding that cocaine deaths have “gone up astronomically”.

Mr McCrisken said that cocaine is abused in the province “on a very large scale” and “we now have the death rate to go with it”. 

Figures shared by the Northern Ireland newspaper show that in the past six months, the average age of someone dying from drugs – either illicit or prescription drugs – is 41 years old. The youngest victim of a death caused by drug use was 18 years old, whilst the oldest was 85 years of age. 

Commenting on the demographic breakdown of fatalities, the Northern Ireland Coroner insisted it is not predominantly younger people who are abusing drugs:

“Its people aged 25 and 44 who form the biggest cohort of deaths. That’s the pattern recently, and there is nothing to suggest it is younger people who are abusing these drugs”, he said.

‘AN UPWARD TRAJECTORY’

The number of deaths from drugs in the North represents “an upward trajectory which shows no sign of coming down,” the Coroner said. The number of deaths from drugs increased to 218 in 2020 alone in Northern Ireland, compared to 92 in 2010, a 136 per cent increase over the course of the last decade. 

Post-mortem data recorded by the Coroner’s Office between August 2021 and February 2022 also shows an increase in yearly drug deaths. The latest available figures published in August revealed a 14.1 per cent increase in drug related deaths from 2019 to 2020.

Mr McCrisken said that prescription drugs have increasingly played a role in the number of registered drug deaths. A drug-related death is when the underlying cause of death recorded on the death certificate is drug poisoning, drug abuse or drug dependence. A drug-misuse death is classified as when the underlying cause is drug poisoning, drug abuse, or drug dependence, or where any of the substances controlled under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act are involved.

“The amount of death certificates that mention five or more drugs continues to increase. Around 10 to 15 years ago, there may have been one or two drugs on a death certificate. Now it’s not uncommon to see eight, nine or 10 drugs mentioned on a death certificate. It is very rare to see just one.

“It’s a mix, between drugs available on a prescription and illicit drugs that are bought on the street,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.

The Coroner said that the drug bromazepam, which is often prescribed to treat anxiety, was a drug he “hadn’t heard of until 18 months ago”. Yet it is now behind one in three deaths in Northern Ireland. 

He said that the drug “is like taking 100 diazepams three times a day — that’s what we are seeing. And some people are taking it alongside heroin, cocaine and alcohol.”

Mr McCrisken’s comments come as an inquest on Tuesday heard that a gifted Northern Ireland student died from a mix of alcohol and ketamine,  a drug used as an anaesthetic for humans and animals, and which is often abused by snorting it as a powder for its hallucinogenic and dissociative effects.

INQUEST INTO DEATH OF ‘GIFTED’ CO ARMAGH STUDENT

Jeni Larmour, 18, from Newtownhamilton in County Armagh, died the evening after she was dropped off at her halls of residence to begin life as a student at Newcastle University, where she had been enrolled to study architecture and urban planning. She was found lifeless by paramedics at around 5am on 3 October, 2020, just hours after her mother had dropped her off. 

Pathologist Dr Nigel Cooper said: “She had arrived in Newcastle from Northern Ireland the previous day, she had been with other occupants of her flat on that evening, alcohol had been consumed and there were indications that other substances may have been taken as well.”

A roommate of the Co Armagh student told the inquest that he feels “a moral responsibility” for her death. Jenni had been partying with flatmate Kavir Kalliecharan, who discovered her after he himself passed out.

The inquest heard that he said: “It’s my fault, I’ve given her too much” after alerting other residents of halls in a bid to help her. 

Sandra Larmour paid tribute to her daughter ahead of Tuesday’s inquest, saying she thrived at school, and was gifted with a “huge personality, confidence and humour”. The A* student’s death has “left a huge void that will never be filled,” he grieving mother said.

An EU-wide survey on drug use conducted last year showed that the popularity of the drug, commonly known as a horse tranquilliser, has rocketed in Ireland, with more than one third of 18-24-year-old males admitting to using the drug. The survey showed that almost one quarter of Irish drug users have reported taking it, especially among those who use drugs in nightlife settings and occasional users. 

Senior Addiction Therapist at Cuan Mhuire addiction treatment centre, Michael Guerin, was among those to issue a warning over the drug. Speaking to the Examiner in August, he said ketamine is a very dangerous drug which can make users feel invincible.

He recalled how one young man had narrowly escaped death or serious harm when he walked along the white line in the middle of the M50 motorway while on the drug, attracted by the lights of the toll booth. 

“He was very luckily rescued by gardaí. He was lucky to survive. When people are under the influence of these substances, they see no danger. So, they can engage in acts that put their life at risk.

“Ketamine is extremely, extremely dangerous. The risk of overdose and adverse events from ketamine use, particularly once-off ketamine use, are quite high.

“So, it’s a very high-risk drug,” Mr Guerin said.

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