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By Maurice Fitzmaurice
No single drug was responsible and an officer leading the inquiry said the fatalities were not being treated as murder
Three people have been arrested by police investigating eight suspected drug deaths, it emerged yesterday.
They were detained in Belfast and the North-West of Northern Ireland over a four-week period and were released pending further enquiries but investigators stressed they are not linking the deaths or the arrests.
No single drug was responsible and an officer leading the inquiry said the fatalities were not being treated as murder.
People aged mainly in their 20s and 30s died and the PSNI is still awaiting the results of more forensics tests before reaching conclusions.
Drugs have killed almost 1,000 people in Northern Ireland over the last decade – a market now supplied by 150 organised gangs spanning Europe and beyond – and the senior investigator warned consumers were playing “Russian roulette” with their lives.
Det Chief Supt Roy McComb said: “There is a sense that these eight people have died because of one bad batch, I want to dispel that myth.
“There is no consistent individual drug that we are finding linking any of these deaths, no single bad pill.”
Last year nearly 1,400 people were charged with drugs offences – an increase of almost 16% on 2011.
Police dismissed suggestions that they were not doing enough to tackle drugs in Northern Ireland when the “dogs on the street” knew who was responsible.
DCS McComb added: “We don’t speak dog. If people know we would rather they picked up the phone and spoke to organised crime branch.”
First Minister Peter Robinson and Health Minister Edwin Poots were among those urging police to act.
While the most common substance seized was cannabis, the trade in prescribed drugs has become a major problem and misuse of tranquillisers such as Diazepam and anti-depressants kills more people than controlled drugs, police said.
Last year 110 people died through drugs and Mr McComb said three times more people were dying from prescribed medications than from heroin and ecstasy.
The number of ecstasy tablets seized annually has plummeted from 30,000 to 6,000 last year but the PSNI has issued an alert about ecstasy laced with a slower-acting bulking chemical PMMA which can prove even more deadly because abusers may take extra pills in the mistaken belief they are weak.
A recent batch seized contained “Green Rolexes” – which can sell for a couple of pounds each – but the detective said all colours of tablets were potentially dangerous.
They can cause convulsions and overheating, with people taking cold showers in their desperation to cool down.
DCS McComb added: “If you are mixing drink with any type of unprescribed medication you are buying over the internet that is a game of chance and the odds are not in your favour.”
Other emerging drugs include so-called legal highs, made legitimately for domestic purposes such as pond cleaning.