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Lives saved as the PSNI joins global crackdown on illegal drugs trade

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DI David Henderson with prescription drugs recovered during Operation Pangea

DI David Henderson with prescription drugs recovered during Operation Pangea

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Officers on a raid in north Belfast

Officers on a raid in north Belfast

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

DI David Henderson with prescription drugs recovered during Operation Pangea

An anti-drug operation, that took place earlier this month and saw 140,000 illegal and unlicensed tablets seized, "has saved lives", according to the PSNI.

Raids on properties across greater Belfast and Mid Ulster were part of Operation Pangea, an international operation coordinated by Interpol to disrupt the online sale of illicit and counterfeit healthcare products.

Launched in 2008, the operation has seen the arrests of more than 3,000 individuals globally, while removing more than 105m units of illicit materials from circulation.

The operation took place in a week of action from March 3-10 and the four searches carried out by PSNI officers resulted in the seizure of large quantities of diazepam, pregabalin and the arrest of a 33-year-old male.

Accompanied by the media on one raid, officers entered an empty property on Bray Street, in which a search for illicit medicines was conducted using a sniffer dog.

Speaking afterwards in front of a cache of seized products, Detective Inspector David Henderson stressed the importance of such operations in taking illegal goods off the street.

"Our drug deaths figures from 2018 were up 39% on the previous year. In 40% of these deaths, present at these were diazepam tablets," he said.

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Officers on a raid in north Belfast

Officers on a raid in north Belfast

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Officers on a raid in north Belfast

"Also behind me you will see some pregabalin. It was involved in 28.6% of drugs-related deaths in 2018, with a total of 54 deaths having pregabalin present.

"This figure was up from just nine deaths having pregabalin present in 2016 and this shows the rise in the problem we are having at present with prescription drugs in Northern Ireland.

"Operation Pangea is an international operation which targets illicit drugs which are bought through the internet.

"This can be in bulk by persons who are drug suppliers in Northern Ireland and organised criminals who make their money from the supply of these illicit drugs, or an individual who buys them for personal use.

"A lot of these (unregulated) drugs are counterfeit and you really do not know what you are taking when you take one of these pills.

"There could be anything in them, from rat poison to mercury or anything worse than that.

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Parcels are intercepted at a sorting office

Parcels are intercepted at a sorting office

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Parcels are intercepted at a sorting office

"They can seriously damage your health, as our drug-related death figures show."

With the number of drug seizures and arrests here continuing to rise in the last decade, DI Henderson said it was important to have a coordinated approach.

"We have to be honest with ourselves that law enforcement on its own will not cure the drug problem in Northern Ireland," he added.

"All we can hope to do is restrict the supply but we can't stop it completely. What we also have to do is try to suppress demand and to get involved with the likes of the Department of Health in measures to try and dampen demand and cure this problem in the longer term.

"People have the misconception drug deaths only involve illicit drugs such as heroin or cocaine and that is totally wrong.

"Although this is a week-long operation, we are actively targeting drug dealing and supply 365 days of the year.

"If you are in possession of large amounts for supply, as well as criminal assets, these will be seized off you along with your assets and this could ultimately result in a custodial sentence for you."

DI Henderson appealed for the public to work with the PSNI in tackling this problem.

Responding to the seizures, Health Minister Robin Swann said: "Now more than ever people may be looking to the internet to source medicines and I would urge the public not to be misled by professional looking websites offering medicines without a prescription."

Justice Minister Naomi Long added the outcomes of Operation Pangea are being used to "highlight not only the benefits of working together locally and globally, but to reinforce messages to the public about the dangers to health of taking dangerous medications bought online".

Belfast Telegraph