‘Derry is awash with fake drugs. Too many young people are dying’

Amanda Deehan (third from right) pictured at a family birthday party. Her father, Gerald, is pictured far right.
Amanda Deehan (third from right) pictured at a family birthday party. Her father, Gerald, is pictured far right.

Amanda Deehan’s father, Gerald, says it breaks his heart to go to bed each night to the sobs of his wife crying. When he wakes in the morning, it’s usually to the same mournful sound.

“Amanda’s death earlier in the year ripped the family apart,” he told the ‘Journal’. “There is always someone crying. You try to put a brave face on things, particularly for the children, but there’s only so often you can do that. “

Amanda Deehan with her brother, Gerald.

Amanda Deehan with her brother, Gerald.

Amanda Deehan, a 34 year-old mother of two, died in January after she was given a fake or street version of Xanax - an anxiety and panic disorder medication whose increasing use among young people has rocketed in recent years.

A tranquiliser designed to have a calming effect on users, Xanax is a brand name for Alprazolam, which is said to be 10 times stronger than Valium. It is not available on the NHS. It can be obtained on private prescription in the UK, is widely prescribed in the US, and fabricated versions circulate widely on the black market.

Counterfeit Xanax, says Gerald Deehan, is “everywhere in Derry”. Its use, he claims, has reached “epidemic levels”.

“Young people are dying every week in this city because of fake Xanax and other deadly counterfeit drugs,” he says. “People might think this is an exaggeration but it’s a fact. My daughter may be just a statistic to some but try telling that to her mother and brothers. If ‘Xanax’ wasn’t so easily available in Derry, Amanda would still be with us.”

Amanda, says Gerald, had suffered from mental ill health for years but, he believes, she had turned a corner. “She’d also had her problems with drugs but she’d been clean for five years. She was trying to get on with her life and leave her demons behind her. She was making a real effort and I believe she’d turned a corner. And, then, ‘Xanax’ came along.”

Gerald Deehan, a former psychiatric nurse, says versions of the drug, as well as other deadly counterfeit variants of medicines such as Oxycodeine, are easily available from local dealers as well as on the dark web. They can, he says, be bought for as little as £1 a pill. “It has gone under the radar for too long - for far too long,” he says. “It is starting to make its mark here and it will only get worse unless something is done to block its availability. The authorities also need to step up to the plate and realise the gravity of the situation. It really is a matter of life and death.

“Not a day goes by when I hear about someone being affected by it. I don’t want other families to go through the pain that my family has endured since Amanda’s death. It’s unbearable.

“I want to get the word out there into the community that these type of drugs are available and they’re killing people - particularly young ones. It really is the case that one pill can kill.”

Gerald Deehan’s warning appears to be underlined by the statistics. Only recently, NI’s coroner Joe McCrisken said he was signing off an Alprazolam-related death nearly once a week. Alprazolam is the generic name for Xanax.

He said that “most of the deaths” were caused by counterfeit versions of Xanax.

The deaths were, he added, a “very tiny tip of what is a very huge iceberg”.

The PSNI says the misuse of prescription drugs and the resultant deaths are a matter of real concern. Detective Chief Inspector Neil McGuinness, from the Organised Crime Unit, said: “When we refer to drug misuse and related deaths, people often assume that we must mean illicit drugs like heroin, cocaine and ecstasy. Whilst these drugs cause serious harm and can be fatal, the majority of deaths in Northern Ireland are due to the misuse of a variety of prescription medicines, often with alcohol and illicit drugs. People think that because Alprazolam - a benzodiazepine which is used to treat anxiety disorders and depression - is a prescription drug, it must be safe to take for recreational purposes. However, it is a dangerous and harmful drug, particularly when mixed with other drugs or alcohol.

“The harm and hurt caused by drug misuse is cross cutting and impacts people’s lives at every level in NI. This is why officers work on a daily basis across NI to remove the harm caused by drugs within communities.

“However, due to the causes, complexity and pervasiveness of drug misuse, no one agency can tackle it alone. We will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to prevent the importation and supply of illicit and counterfeit drugs by proactively investigating the organised crime gangs who supply them. Continued partnership, working with the broadest range of stakeholders in government and communities, is key to preventing drug misuse and keeping people safe.”