An international anti-drug operation which took place in Northern Ireland earlier this month “has saved lives” according to the PSNI.
Raids on properties across greater Belfast and Mid Ulster were part of Operation Pangea, an 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 105 million units of illicit materials from circulation.
The four searches carried out by PSNI officers resulted in the seizure of 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 alongside a drug 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.
“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 you 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. They can seriously damage your health, as our drug related death figures show.”
All we can hope to do is restrict the supply but we can’t stop it completely.DI Henderson
With the number of drug seizures and arrests in NI continuing to rise in the last decade, DI Henderson stressed that it was important the fight against this problem was a coordinated one.
“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 that 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.”
Finally, DI Henderson made an appeal for the public to work with the PSNI in tackling this problem.
“If they know a relative or friend who is misusing drugs of any kind they should do all they can to encourage that person to seek help to get themselves away from misusing drugs,” he said.
Taking short cuts and using these medicines could expose you to a dangerous counterfeit or substandard medicine.Robin Swann
Health Minister Robin Swann added: “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.
"Taking short cuts and using these medicines could expose you to a dangerous counterfeit or substandard medicine, people are often unaware of the potentially fatal consequences of taking these unprescribed medicines and drugs.
“This problem is not something we can tackle in isolation and it is through inter-agency collaboration with our colleagues in Police, Border Force and Department of Justice that we can tackle the problem of illegal medicines entering our communities. Operation Pangea has shown that the illicit medicines recovered were destined for addresses throughout Northern Ireland leaving none of our communities immune from the dangers presented by drugs like these.”
Anyone with information which could lead to the arrest of persons involved in selling these drugs, or the seizure of some drugs, should phone 101, alternatively the independent Crimestoppers charity on 0800 555 111.