'Explosion in synthetic drug use will kill many more', says top doctor
The use of synthetic drugs has "exploded" across Ireland according to experts, as families hide behind closed doors trying to cope with the violent side of users as young as 13 accessing lethal drugs at the click of a button.
Michael Cornacchia (16), whose death was linked to the U4 synthetic drug last month, and 18-year-old Alex Ryan, who died in January 2016 after taking the N-Bomb drug, are the high-profile cases that have drawn attention to the dangers of synthetic drugs.
But not even tragedies such as these have stemmed the tide on the surge of use among Ireland's young, and families are ill-equipped to deal with a narcotic blight changing so rapidly that not even the justice system can keep up.
City drug counsellors have revealed an increasing number of 13 to 25-year-olds have been using a host of synthetic drugs -including the deadly U4, which is almost 18 times more potent than morphine.
According to the Family Support Network, which is based at Gardiner Row, the drugs are causing children as young as 13 to be violent against their own parents. Other synthetic drugs like mephedrone, which has the street name 'meow meow', have led to some users taking their own lives.
Dr Eamon Keenan, consultant psychiatrist in substance misuse at the HSE, said: "Things have changed since the head shops - there's been an explosion in synthetic drug use.
"Some 160 new psychoactive drugs have emerged in the last few years and the effects of drugs like U4 wear off quickly, so users take more and more.
"Another drug, fentanyl, is also more potent than morphine or heroin.
"Mephedrone is associated with suicides more than other drugs and users have jumped off bridges and hanged themselves.
"There's also a link between cathinone drugs (bath salts drugs) and suicide.
"These drugs have a range of side effects, from liver damage to kidney damage and we have no idea what the long-term mental and physical side effects will be."
Dr Keenan fears that synthetic drugs are now so widely used that drug death figures are certain to indicate an increase.
"In Ireland we are reliant on the drugs death index and it's two years behind," he added.
"We have seen an increase in the number of deaths from new psychoactive substances but there's been a lot of drugs that have emerged since then. We think the number of deaths from these psychoactive drugs is increasing."
New psychoactive substances (NPS) were implicated in 13 deaths in 2014, but some drug counsellors believe so-called 'designer drugs' have now taken over where cannabis and cocaine had been the drug of choice for many young people.
"After the death of the young man in Cork, we had to tell people of the dangers of this U4 opioid drug because it had also caused so many deaths in the US," Dr Keenan said.
The highest-profile death from U4 and fentanyl was that of superstar singer, Prince, who died in April 2016.
Last week, Fine Gael Dublin Senator Catherine Noone called for tougher measures to be taken against those convicted of selling and possessing synthetic drugs.
"As a result of this unfortunate phenomenon, it's clear that new measures need to be introduced," Senator Noone said.
"Fines and community service sentences are not enough to deter those distributing and selling these substances.
"Increased efforts are urgently needed to stop these drugs getting into the hands of dealers.
"Furthermore, I am calling for tougher measures to be taken against those convicted of selling and possessing these illegal synthetic drugs."
Under this stance users could face potential criminalisation - a move Dr Keenan said was "not pragmatic", especially given the huge number of young people who have taken the drugs nationally.
When asked about this plan, Senator Noone back-tracked on creating stricter punishments for those possessing the drugs.
"The distributors and those selling them should be punished more severely but not the vulnerable users - they are not necessarily the targets," she said.
"I'd be willing to take advice on that. But we do need to be able to prosecute and track those who are distributing these drugs."
She said that although she was "pretty naive" about drugs, she felt the problem of synthetic drugs was becoming so worrying in Ireland that "kids from eight or nine need to be educated on their dangers".
Tony Duffin, director of the Ana Liffey Drug Project on Abbey Street in Dublin, said it was "important politicians don't use sound bites to attempt to solve a complex issue".
He added:"The 'Just Say No' campaigns of yesteryear didn't work.
"If you're going to use drugs anyway, the information needs to keep people as safe as possible. It needs to be a harm-reduction message."