A cluster of 20 deaths linked to a new, unregulated stimulant drug known as “speckled cherries” is like having a serial killer on the loose, a coroner said.
The fatalities happened between June 18 last year and April this year and the toxic substance causes agitation, convulsions, overheating and death, but is not yet banned.
Senior detectives from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) organised crime branch are investigating, the Belfast hearing was told.
Stormont’s health minister Edwin Poots expressed concern about the number of new substances appearing on the streets and warned that users were risking their lives.
Five inquests have been held into related deaths. The men were aged between 27 and 41 and include a barman and a postman.
Coroner Suzanne Anderson said: “Hopefully action can be taken to stem the supply of these dangerous drugs.”
Mr Poots said: “The only safe advice is not to use them.”
Ms Anderson held an inquest into the death of a postman who had used the speckled cherries, known scientifically as 4,4-Dimethylaminorex. Hundreds more tablets, white with cherry imprints, were found at his house in Co Down.
Brian Mills, 41, from Shore Road in Kircubbin, complained to his son James that he was too warm following an all-night drinking session at his home in August last year. Minutes later he stopped breathing and appeared to be having a fit, James Mills told the inquest.
Paramedics were unable to save him.
In another case, bar manager Alan McKenzie, 26, from east Belfast, was involved in a wrangle with his former partner over child contact and might have suffered from depression, according to witness statements read during the Belfast inquest.
He had been to a nightclub in the city one weekend, attended a barbecue at his parents, then continued to drink with around 12 friends from Sunday until midday on Monday.
He went to sleep and never woke up, a police officer told the hearing.
Dr Bernadette Prentice, a scientist from Forensic Science Northern Ireland, said the drug was not controlled (banned by legislation) in the UK.
She added: “4,4-Dimethylaminorex can be regarded as a novel psychoactive substance. It has rarely been encountered as a drug of abuse and consequently (there is) very little data.”
She said it could be sold as powder or tablets and was first found in the Netherlands in 2012 and later in Finland, Hungary - where there have been eight deaths reported - and Denmark.
The coroner observed: “It seems to have had catastrophic effects from the outcome of our hearings in these inquests.”
Mr Poots said he was greatly concerned about the number of new substances reaching the streets and the harm they can cause.
He added: “Over the past couple of years there has been growing concern about what have been inaccurately labelled as legal highs. They are marked ‘not for human consumption’ for a reason as the sellers are trying to get around our existing drug laws and medicines regulations.”
He has written to the Home Secretary and a review of drugs law is due to report back shortly.
A senior detective has been co-ordinating investigations.
Detective Superintendent Andrea McMullan, from the Organised Crime Branch, said the substance was not confined to one particular brand of tablet.
She said: “People should not lull themselves into a false sense of security by thinking if they avoid tablet X and only take tablet Y or Z they’ll be okay. The tragic reality is they will not.
“Anyone who takes illegal drugs runs a serious risk of causing themselves serious harm or killing themselves. There is no safe illegal drug.”
Police investigations into drug-related deaths last summer resulted in 11 arrests. One person has appeared in court. Three others were awaiting court proceedings but one has since died.
Last year the number of drug seizures in Northern Ireland increased by almost 8% to more than 4,800. There was a 3% increase in arrests to more than 2,800 and a 25% increase in ecstasy seizures to more than 8,200 tablets.
In another case, Derek Owens and Diane Potter said their family had been “robbed” following the death of their brother, James Owens.
Mr Owens told the BBC: “The police know who are selling these drugs; they need to get them off the streets, now, they cannot leave it.”
Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris said: “This particular substance has been discovered elsewhere in Europe and is particularly potent and very dangerous and people are right to be alarmed, and the best way to avoid it is not to take illegal drugs.”