Headshops may have gone away but deadly ‘designer’ drugs are still easily available

Claire O'Sullvan examines where these synthetic drugs are coming from and gets advice for parents on how to talk to teens about them

Headshops may have gone away but deadly ‘designer’ drugs are still easily available

THE only way to stop your children trying out the likes of U-47700 (U4), the synthetic drug that likely killed a 16-year-old in Cork this week, is to make them afraid of them.

That’s the view of Chris Luke, a consultant in emergency medicine at Cork University Hospital and Mercy University Hospital, who regularly gives talks on drugs in schools.

He says parents should engineer casual chats with their children about synthetic or “designer” drugs and, in doing so, bring home some cold truths about the lack of quality control.

“Parents should be reasonably afraid of these powders and should convey that fear to their children,” he told Cork’s 96FM.

“Anxiety, apprehension, and fear about what is in a tablet is the only thing that will stop young people from trying them.”

Designer drugs are substances which are designed in underground labs to mimic the effects of already banned drugs, such as ecstasy, cocaine, and heroin.

Michael Cornacchia: A talented footballer, the 16-year-old was found dead by his mum having reportedly taken U4.
Michael Cornacchia: A talented footballer, the 16-year-old was found dead by his mum having reportedly taken U4.

According to Dr Luke, there are now up to a million separate registered chemical compounds “in the official statistics”.

“It’s inevitable that every week, we will see new recreational drugs coming at us from China, South America, and Eastern Europe,” he said.

U4 was developed by 20th-century pharmaceutical giant Upjohn. In 1976, chemist Jacob Szmuszkovicz patented the drug after a round of animal testing, noting that it was more potent than morphine but supposedly less addictive.

The opioid was intended to treat severe pain caused by cancer, surgery, or injury, but was never tested on humans and ended up being relegated to research — until now.

Unfortunately, the patent was publicly available with detailed instructions on how to produce U4 and gangs running illicit drug labs saw the mega-profits to be made from getting it onto the streets.

“These drugs are easier to get than alcohol for young teenagers,” says Mick Finn, an independent city councillor and school completion project worker in Ballyphehane, Cork City, near where 16-year-old Michael Cornacchia lived.

It is believed the super-strength drug is being sold as cocaine to unsuspecting users in Cork and this creates huge risk as the user is unlikely to have “opiate tolerance”, says David Lane, the HSE co-ordinator of drug and alcohol services.

Gardaí at the Cornacchia house in Deermount, Cork City, where 16-year-old Michael died. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney.
Gardaí at the Cornacchia house in Deermount, Cork City, where 16-year-old Michael died. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney.

“People also should be aware that these synthetic drugs can lead to significant mental health problems. They can cause serious psychological damage and that isn’t getting enough coverage,” he said.

A young person doesn’t even have to take the bus into town anymore to get these highs from the local headshop.

The headshops are gone thanks to 2010 legislation but the drugs are just a click away as the internet is awash with sites selling the drugs.

They can be in your child’s bedroom within days.

Dr Luke’s fear is that the tragedy in Cork this week is just the beginning as more synthetic opiates starting trickling into the country.

The US has blamed these designer drug labs for the “worst opium-type epidemic in 40-odd years”.

The super-strong powder has been linked to up to 90 deaths across the US in the last nine months, including two 13-year-olds in Utah.

It hit the headlines following the death of Prince, who took a cocktail of drugs which included U5 and fentanyl, another synthetic opioid.

U4 is almost eight times more potent than heroin and similar to heroin, methadone, or any other opiate, these family of drugs often kill by stopping the breathing mechanism.

Initially, the user might experience the “euphoric relaxation” that websites promise but then, according to Dr Luke, they start to feel increasingly “smacked out” before falling into a sleep and, unbeknown to themselves, stopping breathing.

Michael Cornacchia
Michael Cornacchia

Michael Cornacchia’s suspected death from U4 this week comes less than a year after 18-year-old Alex Ryan died in Togher having taken the N-bomb designer drug at a party at Greenmount in the city.

So what can be done to stop these deaths?

These drugs were supposed to disappear when headshops were shut down in this country in 2010. They didn’t. They went online instead.

David Lane is a fan of the headshop legislation as he says there was a “notable decrease” in the numbers presenting to the Cork and Kerry addiction services because of synthetic drug usage.

Under the recently revised legislation, U4 is a controlled substance but that still doesn’t stop young people taking a chance that they won’t get caught with it or that it won’t be stopped in the post by customs.

Cllr Mick Finn gave a talk at Michael Cornacchia’s school yesterday.

He spoke to the teenagers about making “good choices” in life and about “seeking advice” if they are worried that friends are “going down the wrong road”.

“We are hearing of children as young as 13 outside drinking in known places and we need gardaí, parents, and the wider community to act on this.

"The whole community needs to respond when they see children making the wrong choices,” said Mr Finn.

“Parents also should know where their kids are, who they are with and what they are doing. There is a role for everyone to play in ensuring that children are helped to make the right choices.

"Remember they are only children.”

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