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Mother who lost son to legal highs welcomes QUB test to fast-track identification of drugs

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 03/03/2016

Adele Wallace
Adele Wallace
Adele Wallace's teenage son Adam Owens whose death was blamed on legal highs

The mother of a teenager who died after taking so-called legal highs has welcomed a new 'fast track' method of identifying the drugs, which has been developed by experts at Queen's University, Belfast (QUB).

The authorities have struggled to keep pace with the different types of 'legal highs' - also known as novel psychoactive substances (NPS) - available.

By the time action is taken against one legal high, another version with a slightly different chemical composition can already be on the market.

In 2014 alone, 101 new psychoactive substances were identified.

Now a new 'rapid screening' approach has been developed by chemists at QUB that will enable vital information to be passed on to the PSNI and Public Health Agency.

Adele Wallace - whose life was turned upside down when her 17-year-old son Adam Owens lost his life last April after taking legal highs - said it was a "positive step".

As well as allowing agencies to build a 'live' picture of which drugs are currently in circulation, it is hoped it will also help speed up related criminal prosecutions.

Next month a total ban on legal highs will come into force under the Government's Psychoactive Substances Act.

Adam started taking the drugs at 14 and was discovered lying outside a house in Bristol Park in the Westwinds estate, Newtownards.

His mother is now dedicated to campaigning to stop any other family losing a loved one to NPS.

However, she said the Government must also focus on shutting down websites that sell the deadly substances.

"These developments are welcomed but like any kind of legislation things can go underground," she said. "Who has responsibility over how these sites can advertise and sell these?

"But rapid screening is excellent as it took seven months for Adam's toxicology to come back."

The QUB project was conducted by researchers in the School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering in conjunction with Forensic Science Northern Ireland.

It was awarded £71,000 by Stormont's Department of Justice from a scheme which uses assets seized from criminals to support a range of initiatives.

Professor Steven Bell explained: "The production of these drugs is constantly evolving and unfortunately there have been many instances of highly dangerous variants appearing, causing multiple fatalities before the threat they posed was recognised.

"This will not only aid in the creation of new legislation but will also enable more meaningful information to be available to the community, police and public health agencies, with the aim of saving lives and preventing serious injury."

Ms Wallace said parents need to be aware of how their children can access the potentially deadly drugs.

"Children are sitting in their bedrooms ordering them and getting them delivered through the post in nice, plain packaging. Nobody should have to bury their own child, especially over something so cheap and deadly as a legal high," he said.

Justice Minister David Ford said: "Whilst there's still work to do, this research will help Forensic Science Northern Ireland to identify what's in these legal highs more quickly, enabling them to identify substances and get messages out to communities.

"It is also very satisfying that this work is funded by the Asset Recovery Community Scheme which uses the assets seized from criminals to support projects aimed at preventing crime."

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