Experts face battle as one new drug emerges every five days
New drugs are coming on the market every week in Northern Ireland - and experts charged with analysing them are struggling to cope with the influx.
The warning comes from a senior official at Forensic Science NI, the organisation at the front line of investigating the deadly trade.
In the last year 81 new types of drugs appeared across Europe, with most of them finding their way to Northern Ireland – that's an average of one new drug emerging every five days.
The dangers of these substances have been highlighted in a series of recent inquests. One stimulant, Para-methyl-4-methylaminorex – known more commonly as 4,4-DMAR – has been linked to 21 deaths across Northern Ireland.
According to Peter Barker, director of reporting services at Forensic Science NI, experts are struggling to keep up with the rapidly changing drugs scene.
He said there had been an "explosion" in the number of chemicals they were now dealing with.
"Every forensic organisation across the world is struggling to keep up," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
The number of drug cases coming into Forensic Science's labs has risen from about 400 in 2005 to 1,700 a year – a quadrupling of the workload – and Mr Barker said many drugs that appear on the continent are finding their way to Northern Ireland.
"In different countries across Europe 81 drugs were characterised last year, and a similar number will appear this year," he said. "You could be talking a new drug every week, and there are huge challenges around that.
"Detecting a drug is one thing, but actually finding out what it is and its precise chemical nature is a huge challenge."
A particular problem is the growing availability of legal highs which, despite their name, are actually illegal. Many suppliers use descriptions such as bath salts or plant food and claim the substances are not intended for human consumption in an attempt to sidestep the law.
Mr Barker said those who sell legal highs are grossly misrepresenting a potentially lethal product. "Personally I think they are an absolute disgrace. Anybody who tries to sell something as bath salts or whatever is misrepresenting the product and it must be contravening some law in terms of what they are selling."
The forensic expert added that people should be quite clear about the risks of taking legal highs. "These substances are not legal. They are in no way tested, they are in no way ratified for use. The term legal high really refers to the fact that it's a drug which is not yet illegal or classified under the Misuse of Drugs Act. However, that doesn't mean it has been tested or is in any way legally sold for human consumption."
- Forensic Science NI employs around 220 staff, of which about 165 are scientists
- Its headquarters are situated outside Carrickfergus. About 50% of its work is related to serious crime
- Although mainly funded by the PSNI, the organisation is independent.
- Apart from drugs, its areas of expertise include DNA, explosives, firearms and traffic collisions