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designer drugs

Synthetic drugs: How new highs are infiltrating the Irish market

Irish people are some of the biggest consumers of synthetic drugs in Europe.

SYNTHETIC DRUGS HAVE been a constant threat on the Irish drug scene since head shops started popping up around the country in the mid-late 2000s.

Different versions of laboratory-created drugs made to mimic the effects of streets drugs continue to be pumped out and have been made readily available from street dealers or illicit online markets.

The emergence the U-4 drug, which took the life of Cork teenager Michael Cornacchia earlier this week, has brought the dangers of synthetic drugs to the fore.

The effect of U-4 is described by many as one of euphoria, relaxation, anxiety suppression and pain relief. Its effects are considered to be similar to oxycodone.

HSE consultant psychiatrist Dr Eamon Keenan said many new psychoactive substances have come it Ireland in the past three years.

The drugs can be hard to legislate for. In many circumstances, if a country bans a certain drug, the chemical chain can be augmented by a tiny amount, thus creating a new product which is not outlawed and then can be possessed without fear of prosecution. However, in Ireland, all psychoactive substances were banned under the head shop ban in 2000.

Keenan said that U-4 had been the cause of over 50 deaths since the synthetic powder became popular there in 2015. Due to the powder’s popularity, U-4 has been produced in bulk in China and has been shipped to dealers worldwide, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency in the United States.


In the aftermath of Cornacchia’s death, the HSE released a statement warning users of the danger of the psychoactive substance.

It read: “All drug users are advised there is no guarantee the drug you think you are buying and consuming is in fact the drug you are sold.

“We are aware substances sold as cocaine may in fact contain other substances such as synthetic opioids.”

The latest survey found that Irish teenagers were the highest users of synthetic drugs in Europe. The revelation comes from the an EU sponsored study, which was published in 2012.

The report found that new psychoactive substances are becoming widely available in Europe at an unprecedented pace. 115 such substances were reported since 2005. In 2010, a record number of 41 new drugs were reported, up from 24 in 2009 and 13 in 2008. They included a plant-based substance, synthetic derivatives of well-established drugs, and so-called ‘designer drugs’.

Special garda units have been trained to investigate online sales of these drugs. Gardaí, along with customs, must now be on the lookout for an exponentially greater number of illicit drugs which were not available 20 years ago.

The pharmacological make up of drugs such U-4 mean they can be highly potent and the HSE has urged everyone to stay away from illegal drugs.

There was a spate of drug deaths in Cork and Dublin last year related to the designer drug fentanyl, commonly known as synthetic heroin. This was a case where a drug was misused to mimic the effects of heroin, resulting in at least five deaths.

Fentanyl is a analgesic and used in both anaesthetics and as a strong painkiller. A number of black market fentanyls have been implicated in deaths where it has been assumed to be heroin.

Support around drug and alcohol use is available on the HSE’s confidential helpline (1800 459 459) and through email support service

Information is also available on

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