'Speckled Rolex' linked to 20 drug-related deaths
A cluster of 20 deaths from a new unregulated stimulant drug has been reported to the authorities in Northern Ireland, a pathologist told an inquest.
The fatalities happened between June 18 last year and February 6 this year and a coroner described the effect of the toxic substance - which causes agitation, convulsions, overheating and death - as "catastrophic".
Detectives from the PSNI organised crime branch are investigating, the Belfast hearing was told. Stormont's health minister Edwin Poots expressed concern about the number of new substances appearing on the streets and warned users were risking their lives.
Coroner Suzanne Anderson held an inquest into the death of a postman from using 4,4-Dimethylaminorex. Hundreds more tablets, white with cherry imprints, were found at his house in Co Down.
Ms Anderson said: "Hopefully action can be taken to stem the supply of these dangerous drugs."
Mr Poots added: "The only safe advice is not to use them."
Brian Mills, 41, from Shore Road in Kircubbin, Co Down, complained to his son James that he was too warm following an all-night drinking session at his home in August last year. Minutes later he stopped breathing, appearing to be having a fit, James Mills told the inquest.
Paramedics were unable to save him.
The coroner added: "I think this case highlights very clearly the grave risks involved in taking illegal drugs and I think following all these deaths, this cluster of deaths, I certainly am pleased to know that the police are taking the matter seriously and are liaising with Forensic Science Northern Ireland (FSNI) and with the pathologist's department."
Dr Bernadette Prentice, a scientist from FSNI, analysed the victim's blood for toxins and found 4,4-Dimethylaminorex, known as speckled cherries or speckled crosses.
A total of 287 tablets containing the drug were discovered at Mr Mills's home by his brother, Leonard Mills. They were confiscated by police.
Dr James Lyness, assistant state pathologist in Northern Ireland, said Mr Mills's death was one of several involving the drug.
He told the inquest: "There are 19 cases from 18 June 2013 to 6 February 2014 where the 4,4-Dimethylaminorex... is mentioned within the cause of death."
Dr Prentice said the drug was not controlled (banned by legislation) in the UK.
She added: "4,4-Dimethylaminorex can be regarded as a novel psychoactive substance.
"It has rarely been encountered as a drug of abuse and consequently (there is) very little data."
She said it could be sold as powder or tablets and was first found in the Netherlands in 2012 and later in Finland, Hungary - where there have also been deaths reported - and Denmark.
Police made several seizures of the substance in Northern Ireland last year and the PSNI's organised crime anti-drugs unit is investigating, Dr Prentice told the inquest. She said police had been holding meetings with forensic scientists and the pathologist's department.
The toxicologist said a certified reference standard for testing was not available but there was little reason to doubt the accuracy of the results.
"It is clear that they will have some similarities to related stimulant drugs."
Among the potential effects are agitation, increased body temperature, convulsions, organ failure and death.
The coroner observed: "It seems to have had catastrophic effects from the outcome of our hearings in these inquests."
Other stimulant drugs similar to ecstasy, taken in Mr Mills's case, were likely to further increase the toxicity of 4,4-Dimethylaminorex, the inquest was told.
Constable David Hayes attended the scene of Mr Mills's death.
He seized four white tablets and later received 287 pills from Leonard Mills, who found them in his brother's kitchen.
He confirmed: "C1 Organised Crime Department are involved in this matter."
Searches were made following Mr Mills's death but nothing was found.
Mr Poots said he was greatly concerned about the number of new substances reaching the streets and the harm they can cause.
He said: "There were a number of potentially drug-related deaths in Northern Ireland over last summer. As soon as we became aware of them, and the substances involved the chief medical officer - Dr Michael McBride - issued a number of alerts through his formal alert system and also through the Drug and Alcohol Monitoring and Information System - that is used to inform all appropriate services and those who may come into contact with drug users."
The Public Health Agency also issued warnings and raised awareness through media and public messages.
Mr Poots added: "Over the past couple of years there has been growing concern about what have been inaccurately labelled as legal highs. They are marked "not for human consumption" for a reason as the sellers are trying to get around our existing drug laws and Medicines Regulations.
"This is a reserved matter, I have written directly to the Home Secretary on this matter, and subsequently they have announced a review of how the UK's legislative response can be enhanced beyond the existing measures of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
"I understand this review is to report shortly and I am pleased it is being informed by a range of international evidence and approaches I drew to the attention of the Home Office.
"It is essential that we take a consistent approach across the UK for any efforts to be effective. I will continue to work with key partners across government, and across the UK, to press for further action and new legislation."
A senior detective has been coordinating investigations into drug-related deaths last year.
Detective Superintendent Andrea McMullan, from the Organised Crime Branch, has met the coroner, state pathologist and officials at the Department of Health, FSNI and other official agencies.
The deaths have been the subject of detailed investigation locally by district officers, coordinated by Det Supt McMullan.
She said: "The substance is para-methyl-4-methylaminorex and is not confined to one particular brand of tablet. 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 okay. The tragic reality is they will not.
"Anyone who takes illegal drugs runs a serious risk of causing themselves serious harm or killing themselves. There is no safe illegal drug."
Police investigations into drugs-related deaths last summer resulted in a total of 11 arrests. One person has appeared in court. Three others were awaiting court proceedings but one has since died.
The detective added: "Work has also been done to identify the supply chain of the drugs concerned to look at any linkages between the deaths. For example, the person who sells drugs to a member of the public is just one link in a long chain of organised crime.
"Other links involve supply, distribution and manufacture. Those involved either have been or are currently the subject of significant organised crime investigations into related criminality."
Last year the number of drugs seizures increased by almost 8% to more than 4,800. There was a 3% increase in arrests to more than 2,800 and a 25% increase in ecstasy seizures to more than 8,200 tablets.
Belfast Telegraph Digital