Powerful prescription pills available only in Russia have been linked to a number of deaths in Northern Ireland.
With recent focus on the rise in cocaine, heroin and crystal meth use, these banned pills, and others, have flooded the streets.
They are a type of benzodiazepine – sedatives used to treat epilepsy, insomnia and anxiety – but much more deadly.
This is largely because they are mixed with other drugs, turning them into a deadly cocktail.
Russian pills are called phenazepam, a name that will not be familiar to most because they are called “benzos”, “downers” or “blues” on the street.
The highly potent, slow-release psychoactive substance, which was developed in the Eastern Bloc in the early 1970s, is up to 10 times more potent than diazepam, the most commonly prescribed tranquilizer.
“These drugs all work to ultimately do one thing – slow a person’s breathing, leading to a coma, leading to death,” coroner Joe McCrisken said.
“Phenazepam is a potent, long-acting benzodiazepine. It is prescribed only in Russia. It’s not prescribed in the UK and it’s not prescribed in Western Europe, but I’ve seen an increasing number of phenazepam-related deaths.
It comes in pill, powder or liquid form, with addicts crushing it to snort or injecting it for maximum hits, making it even more dangerous.
Another drug on the radar is Etizolam, which is normally used to treat a variety of anxiety disorders and is only available in Tokyo, India and Italy.
This drug and phenazepam both fall under the category of psychoactive substances and, in just two years, the number of deaths linked to these drugs has increased from 11 to 51.
They are widely available on the dark web and on the street, with offers to buy big lots.
One addict we spoke to takes up to 28 of these pills in a day, sometimes even more, in addition to taking heroin and cocaine.
We called him Jason to protect his identity.
“When you take coke, it’s hard to fall asleep and you have really bad panic attacks, so you take shots,” he says.
“When you’re up there [feeling a hit]your heart races, so you have to wait a bit before taking them, otherwise you might end up putting your heart into it.
“The ones I ordered online were in addition to what I got on the street. It just wasn’t enough to deal with the anxiety and panic attacks. [I was] crack.
“I would go to the site and post them. It’s like a bank transfer to an offshore account, around £40 for 28 tablets, registered too. »
Jason was only 12 when he started abusing drugs. In rehab several times over the past 30 years, he hopes to try another chance.
“I’ve been clean a few times, but you always fall back. You’re aware of the dangers, but you don’t listen,” he says.
“You think you’re invincible. Even when people start falling [dead), it still doesn’t sink in.”
Drug deaths in Northern Ireland are at their highest level in a decade, with people living in deprived areas five times more likely to lose their lives.
The last official figures, dating back to 2020, confirmed 218 deaths that year, with some people taking up to 10 types of drug.
The official death toll for last year is expected to be even higher — and higher again by the time this year ends.
“The situation is escalating. I don’t see something coming that is going to turn the tide. That is depressing,’’ says Mr McCrisken.
“I very much take my job as a death investigator. It’s not necessarily getting involved in the emotion of the situation, but getting answers and providing a family with those answers.
“But every now and again, I take a look at the country and the city [Belfast] where I grew up, and it’s a very different place.
“I have kids, so if anyone thinks this problem isn’t theirs, it won’t affect them, think again.”
A senior police officer recently revealed there are 68 organized crime gangs in Northern Ireland, their main business being drug smuggling, running the gamut from heroin to prescription pills and cannabis .
In June, the PSNI exposed a range of illegal prescription drugs bought online and destined for the streets of Northern Ireland, only to be intercepted by post. About a quarter of a million tablets were seized in the crackdown, dubbed Operation Pangea.
Although there have been significant successes in the fight against drugs, it is widely accepted that what is stopped is only a fraction of what happens.
Those working on the ground, particularly at the epicenter of the crisis in Belfast, are firefighters.
“These pills are coming from absolutely everywhere in Belfast, and they seem to come in with considerable ease,” says pastor Brian Madden.
“I spoke to a young man this morning. He takes 10 tablets of 300 mg per day. If you or I took one of these pills, we’d be upset. He’s been taking 10 a day for two years and it’s cost him a blind fortune to pay for them.
“Right now it’s around £40 for a gram of heroin. Benzos I think are £20 for one.
“If you take 10, that’s £200 a day they have to earn to survive, so they do anything and everything – crime and girls sell themselves. Addiction takes you so low.
Pastor Madden, who runs an outreach center in the heart of the city, isn’t surprised that potent pills banned in the US are on our streets.
He doesn’t believe that banning Russian exports because of the war in Ukraine will do anything to stem the phenazepam problem.
“I don’t think it will make a difference. There’s so much around,’ he told Sunday Life.
“What bothers me a lot is that people say, ‘There is no help’. There is help. Every drug addict we meet, we offer them drug treatment. Most addicts don’t want help. It’s terrible to say.
“I work with people and go to their homes. They will make an internet transfer. They will pay by Paypal, and a taxi will deliver [pills] at their front door. It’s crazy.
“We had 18 deaths in a few months. No one talks about it now, but that was a month or two ago. It got very, very quiet.
“People have evolved in life. People look at addicts and think, “Why would we want to waste our resources on these people?”
“It sounds difficult, but that’s the way people think.
“We are going to snack. You win some and you lose some. The honest truth is that we lose more than we win.
The police on the NI pills problem
Police chiefs ‘share’ their fears over the deadly Russian pills flooding Northern Ireland’s black market and are doing all they can to quell the problem here.
Chief Detective Inspector Ciara Mullan has also confirmed that the “benzo” Etizolam, available only in Tokyo, India and Italy, is also in their sights as illicit prescription drug abuse.
“Unfortunately, time and time again, various benzodiazepines and opioid painkillers have been linked to drug-related deaths,” she said.
“There are several problems. For example, people may take prescription pills in a way that was not recommended by a doctor. In other words, they can “top up” from street vendors or buy online. It’s drug addiction and it can obviously be very dangerous.
“But, in addition, a very serious problem is that of counterfeit pills – pills that are supposed to be something that they are not. Very often when seizures are made of benzodiazepines or opioids, we have found different compounds inside.
“In the past, we have seized large quantities of diazepam and upon examination it was found to contain a psychoactive substance. These drugs are not only manufactured in clandestine laboratories in the UK, but they also arrive from Asia.
In a separate development, campaigners pushing for the introduction of safe injecting rooms in Belfast which they say would ‘save lives’ within weeks of opening, have received a heavy blow.
But it is a decision that can only be made in Westminster and has been ruled out by the Home Office who work closely with the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs.
“We have no plans to introduce drug consumption rooms in the UK. A range of crimes are said to be committed in the course of running these facilities, both by service users and staff, such as possessing a controlled drug or knowingly allowing a controlled drug to be provided on a premises. ” a spokesperson told Sunday Life.
Scotland, which has the highest drug rates in Europe, wanted to introduce safe consumption rooms but this was recently rejected by the UK government.