Police have been unable to trace the criminals responsible for dealing a killer new drug that has claimed the lives of around 20 people in Northern Ireland, a coroner’s court has heard.
A senior detective heading up the investigation into the lethal stimulant told the Province’s senior coroner that a lack of information from the public had so far thwarted efforts to bring the pushers to justice.
Detective Inspector Andrew Dunlop, who was giving evidence at the latest of a series of inquests into deaths last year linked to Para-Methyl -4-Methylaminorex, said it was most likely imported from the Netherlands.
At Monday’s hearing into the death of 21-year-old student Connor Cochrane, Coroner John Leckey also heard from a senior forensic scientist that Hungary is the only other country where the drug has claimed lives, with eight deaths recorded to date.
The substance, which has only been found in seven countries worldwide and has not emerged elsewhere in the UK, is often misleadingly peddled as an ecstasy substitute in tablet form, which are sometimes called Speckled Cherries or Green Rolexes.
As it has only recently emerged, Para-Methyl -4-Methylaminorex is not yet controlled under UK drugs legislation and so is theoretically legal to sell. However, police are able to bring charges against those who sell drugs that ultimately kill someone.
Mr Cochrane, who had Asperger’s syndrome and a history of drug and alcohol misuse, died in his home in Banbridge, Co Down, last November after taking a cocktail of substances, including Para-Methyl -4-Methylaminorex.
Former state pathologist Jack Crane told the coroner that the drug had caused Mr Cochrane’s body to dramatically overheat which caused fatal swelling of the brain.
Mr Leckey, who has presided over a number of the recent inquests linked to the drug and has publicly queried whether manslaughter charges can be brought against the dealers, called Mr Dunlop to give evidence to provide an overview of the PSNI’s efforts to tackle the problem.
The detective, who expressed “frustration” at the inability of current legislation to empower police to strike against new emerging drugs, said police had been unable to definitely prove how the killer tablets had entered Northern Ireland or who was responsible.
He said intelligence would be key to a breakthrough.
“But as always that relies on information coming from the public and community and there was not too much of it forthcoming to enable us to focus on the people involved in the supply,” he said.
Mr Leckey suggested recreational drug users must hold answers.
“Members of the public must know how to get these drugs and the identity of the individuals who can be approached,” he said.
As Mr Cochrane’s parents watched on from the public gallery of Newry courthouse, Mr Dunlop insisted his officers were determined to catch the dealers.
“I can assure you Mr Coroner and indeed the family of Connor that we definitely have done everything we can to identify where they were coming from and who was supplying them,” he said.
“We have done our bit as best we can to identify those people and bring them to justice.”
Senior toxicologist at Forensic Science Northern Ireland, Karen Peters, told the inquest that there had been several seizures of the drug in Northern Ireland last year.
Ms Peters said the substance had been found in six other countries, including the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark and Hungary.
But she said Hungary was the only other country where deaths had been recorded.
She said the drug could cause impaired consciousness, organ failure and death.
Explaining the difficulties in identifying new chemical configurations, Ms Peters told Mr Leckey that only this month had a reference standard been developed to test for Para-Methyl -4-Methylaminorex.
She said it was often manufactured to look like ecstasy tablets.
“I couldn’t tell the difference in looking at them,” she said.
Earlier, Mr Crane explained that the drug caused the “derangement of the body’s temperature mechanism”.
He said its side-effects were potentially significantly more harmful than ecstasy.
The now-retired state pathologist said: “The difficulty with taking drugs of this nature is you don’t know what’s in them.”
He added: “There’s always that potential risk that they will have serious adverse effects.”
Mr Leckey said that, in a UK context, the problem seemed to be essentially a Northern Ireland one.
“It is a problem that concerns many, many people in Northern Ireland, particularly bereaved families,” he said.
“The solution to the problem is not an easy one – that solution is elusive.”
He asked Mr Dunlop why big cities like London and Dublin had not witnessed the same phenomenon.
“I can’t answer that question, Mr Coroner,” the officer replied.
The coroner said he was heartened when Mr Dunlop stated that Stormont’s departments of health and justice and Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin were all examining how to deal with the issue.
Recording the cause of Mr Cochrane’s death as poisoning by drugs and passing his condolences to his family, Mr Leckey referred to the mounting death toll attributed to the drug in Northern Ireland.
“That’s a matter of grave concern to me, and I would have thought Northern Ireland society also, and certainly to police and government agencies,” he said.
“I certainly hope some solution to the problem will be found.”