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Coroner's warning over £1 killer pill claiming young lives

By Angela Rainey

Published 30/07/2016

The public have been warned about the lethal dangers of everyday prescription pills which are claiming young lives across Northern Ireland
The public have been warned about the lethal dangers of everyday prescription pills which are claiming young lives across Northern Ireland
Overdose: Shane Gallagher

The public have been warned about the lethal dangers of everyday prescription pills which are claiming young lives across Northern Ireland.

A senior coroner told of his concern over the scourge of people buying the painkiller Tramadol off the street. The drug now accounts for 40% of all drug-related deaths.

The controlled medication, which is usually given after surgery, is being sold for as little as £1 per tablet on the street.

Coroner Joe McCrisken made the warning as he presided over the inquests of three young people who had all died after taking prescription pills mixed with other drugs.

Mr McCrisken said that even small amounts of Tramadol taken with alcohol could have deadly consequences, as the combined effect shuts down breathing and induces a coma.

The coroner and state pathologist Professor Jack Crane are to submit a formal request to the Chief Medical Officer to reduce the number of prescriptions for Tramadol and have it classified under the Misuse of Drugs Act, making it illegal to possess.

Mr McCrisken said concern was also growing over the abuse of anti-seizure medication Pregabalin, sedatives like diazepam and over the counter medicines such as codeine, which "are all too common as factors in drug-related deaths".

In three inquests heard yesterday at Laganside Court, it was revealed that Shane Gallagher, Pauline Cunningham and Christopher Moore died accidentally from taking prescription drugs, some of which can be bought over the counter.

The coroner said that he had deliberately listed the three hearings on the same day to highlight the seriousness of abusing prescription medication and to inform the public of the symptoms of overdose.

He urged people to seek instant medical help if they suspect a drug overdose, particularly if a person is snoring and there is a lack of response as this indicates a coma and is "often mistaken as sleeping heavily".

The hearings opened with the inquest into doting father Shane Gallagher (34), from Londonderry, who died after an accidental overdose on January 3.

Mr Gallagher, a second year mechanical engineering student at Ulster University, passed away after taking a "relatively low dose" cocktail of prescription medication for depression and painkillers that can be bought over the counter, mixed with alcohol. His family believe it "was a cry for help."

The gifted footballer who loved his family and doted on only child Jack (3) became depressed after losing a two-and-a-half-year court battle to get access to his son.

The court heard how he had worked in New York for eight years as a barman before returning home in 2011 to settle down.

He had been feeling low at not seeing his son and was taking anti-depressants with strong painkillers - although not Tramadol - for a shoulder injury. Both were prescribed by his GP.

The court was told how his friend of 20 years, Damien Hutton, had tried to rouse him after hearing him snore loudly and assuming he was asleep. He had not realised that Mr Gallagher had slipped into a coma.

After the hearing, Mr Gallagher's mother Bernadette said more must be done for fathers fighting to see their children and for people with depression.

"All he ever wanted was to be a dad," added Ms Magee, who is recovering from breast cancer.

"Shane was an amazing son - caring, sensitive and loving. Jack was his world. He loved him more than anything, but it was too much for him to not be able to see him. Shane was a very loyal person, he had lifelong friends and he loved football. He came to all my chemotherapy appointments and would help out in every way. He was an amazing father, son and brother who is dearly missed by us all."

The family of Pauline Cunningham were also in attendance for her inquest, which was adjourned after an hour due to three witnesses failing to attend.

A post-mortem showed that mother-of-one Ms Cunningham (38) died after taking prescription drugs including Tramadol. She was found in Carlisle House hotel on December 15 last year. A date has not yet been set for the inquest to resume.

Mr McCrisken said: "I really wish that there were no more inquests of this nature that relate to people abusing prescriptions drugs, but I am certain that there will be more to come."

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