A deadly new so-called party drug blamed for the deaths of 20 people has been branded a serial killer.
The substance, para-methyl-4-methylaminorex, or 4,4-DMAR, has been linked to a spate of deaths across Northern Ireland in the past year.
The unregulated stimulant is believed to have been mistaken for Ecstasy and is said to be available for as little as £2 per tablet.
Health Minister Edwin Poots said the deaths were shocking and could not be ignored.
He accused loyalist and republican paramilitaries of peddling death within their communities by selling the drug. The toll came to light as inquests into the deaths of some victims were heard.
The victims were aged between 27 and 41 with the deaths occurring between June and April.
The drug has not been found anywhere else in the UK and is believed to have been imported from eastern Europe.
"The message has to go out that the risk is not worth taking," said Mr Poots. "That is a massive loss of life, mainly young people, who have lost their lives by taking these drugs."
He said he believed the majority of deaths occurred in the Belfast area, and blamed paramilitary groups for their supply.
The senior police officer leading the investigation into the deaths said the PSNI was determined to break up the supply chain.
She admitted the problem could not be tackled by police alone.
Detective Superintendent Andrea McMullan from Organised Crime Branch said police have made 11 arrests to date in relation to drug deaths last summer.
"The substance is para-methyl-4-methylaminorex and is not confined to one particular brand of tablet," she said. "It has been identified in a number of tablets and in a number of deaths.
"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 ok. The tragic reality is they will not. There is no safe illegal drug."
She said that in the past year the number of drug seizures by police rose by 8% to 4,800, with a 3% increase in arrests. More than 8,000 Ecstasy tablets were taken out of circulation.
Medical experts said the new drug simulates the effect of Ecstasy, but as it takes longer to have the same effect, users are believed to have taken dangerously large doses in order to receive a high.
Coroner Suzanne Anderson yesterday held inquests into the deaths of three victims of 4,4-DMAR.
During one of the hearings she said: "Hopefully action can be taken to stem the supply of these dangerous drugs."
The Coroner heard how Brian Mills (41), from Shore Road in Kircubbin, Co Down, had told his son James that he was too warm after a drinking session at his home in August last year. Minutes later he stopped breathing and appeared to have a fit, the inquest was told. Paramedics were unable to save him.
Inquests into the deaths of Alan McKenzie and James Owens were also held.
Northern Ireland's senior Coroner, John Leckey, earlier likened the new drug to a serial killer. He said if the same number of people died in a shooting it would be the subject of a huge police probe.
As substances are banned, chemists tweak them
BY DR MARK PIPER
Linked to the recent spate of deaths in Northern Ireland, 4-methylaminorex - the stimulant drug also known as 4,4'-DMAR - is a new psychoactive substance that is not currently controlled by EU drug legislation.
It is based on the parent drug, aminorex, which is an appetite suppressant that was withdrawn from use as it was found to cause pulmonary hypertension.
First detected in the Netherlands in December 2012, the new drug has since been found in Denmark, Hungary, Finland, Sweden and the UK.
Hungary reported eight deaths in June 2013, where this drug was detected in combination with other substances, such as cathinones and benzodiazepines.
In all the fatalities in the UK, at least one other drug was also detected. A range of effects have been associated with this drug, including agitation, hyperthermia (over-heating), foaming at the mouth, breathing problems and cardiac arrest.
The challenge is that as substances are banned, chemists in clandestine labs tweak compounds to move them outside current classification.
Our expertise places Northern Ireland at the vanguard of the global battle against new psychoactive substances, colloquially known as ‘legal highs’ or ‘designer drugs’.
Dr Mark Piper, is a toxicology scientist at Randox Testing Services