Jennifer O'Leary investigates how Northern Ireland's prescription drug dependency has spilled onto the streets.
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'A suburban street in Bangor, and while families around me
'are returning home from work and school, I'm waiting to buy drugs,
'powerful pills that should only be prescribed by a doctor.'
Show me, what have you got?
And you are giving me this stuff.
This is the same stuff as the last time, isn't it?
And this is the prescription drugs?
And this is the stuff that definitely is diazepam?
Now is a good time to tell you, I'm Jennifer O'Leary,
a reporter for BBC Spotlight.
# Body to body
# Funky to funky
# We know how to... #
David Lyle is the man behind Northern Ireland's
hard-hitting road-safety ads.
His campaigns are credited with saving young people's lives.
But it was a different danger on Northern Ireland's streets
that cost the life of his only son, Matthew.
A musician and a recovering heroin addict,
he died in 2005 aged 28 after taking a combination of painkillers
and diazepam bought illegally.
People are playing a dangerous game
when they use these prescription drugs.
I liken it to playing Russian roulette.
It's almost like you take a revolver, put in a combination of pills
and you put the revolver to your head,
you click the trigger and hope that you're going to survive.
But quite often that combination of drugs is going to kill you.
These drugs effectively sedated him to death.
When we found him, we found him in his bedroom
at the top of the house with his head slumped on the floor.
You know? He was just literally slumped over.
His head was down on the floor.
So, it just proved fatal. And tragic.
Can you describe the shock?
Even now, the shock is...intolerable.
And this many years later...
..it never leaves you.
Thousands of people in Northern Ireland
have taken these pills tonight.
They are diazepam,
a type of benzodiazepine commonly known as benzos.
They are useful for treating acute anxiety
and are widely prescribed for that purpose.
But they have another side.
More people die in Northern Ireland with benzodiazepines
in their bloodstream than all of the so-called hard drugs combined.
More than a third of drug-related deaths,
that's accidental overdoses and suicides, feature diazepam.
The numbers are increasing.
Diazepam effectively is a depressant of the brain.
If it's combined with other depressants like alcohol
or like some other drugs,
you simply depress the brain function
so much that the person stops breathing.
They lapse into a coma, they stop breathing and they die.
I don't think people appreciate how significant these risks are.
I suppose because diazepam itself
has been marketed as a very safe drug,
and it is when taken on its own.
It's when it's taken in combination with other substances
that there is real danger.
I don't envisage that the deaths that we are seeing
are going to suddenly stop.
Last September, customs and health authorities
in 81 countries spent a week targeting postal routes
to intercept internet drug parcels.
Some internet sales are entirely legitimate,
but in that one week UK agencies
found 150 packages of illicit pills including diazepam
destined for Northern Ireland.
I think there is an increasing awareness of a growing trade
in the illicit use of prescription drugs.
I am certainly concerned by what is evidence
of an increasing market in both drugs,
unlicensed drugs which people are purchasing over the internet,
hence unregulated with no assurance around their safety or efficacy,
and also the availability of counterfeit drugs
which we just don't know what they contain.
I am investigating how sales on the internet are influencing
the diazepam market here.
It's not just used to import the drug from abroad,
local dealers are using the web and that makes the drug
even more available on the streets today
than at the time Matthew Lyle died.
In my own experience with Matthew,
no young person is safe from dealers.
From pushing, from seeking to interrupt people's lives
and draw them into the pattern.
I've set out to track down today's prescription dealers.
I found a web forum that is essentially a notice board
for a range of illegal drugs
offered for sale right here in Northern Ireland,
including diazepam, also known as blues or yellows
according to the colour of the pill indicating different strengths.
Buying requires very little effort on my part.
I make contact with a dealer called Mick 2012
who has diazepam for sale.
Then it's just a matter of waiting for a phone call.
I clearly couldn't meet the dealer at work.
I'm going undercover so I think I'll play up my accent
and for his part,
well, the dealer has promised to deliver drugs to my door.
'Mick 2012 arrives as planned.
'We've obscured his identity as we believe he's underage.'
And that's all it took. Illegal drugs brought to my door
after a little time on the internet.
They certainly talk a good talk online, but it's not just talk
because here I am, 100 benzos later.
I chose from the menu, all I needed was a phone
and an address for a drop-off,
the same thing if you were to order a pizza,
but in this case, of course, I was ordering pills.
Our weakness for diazepam goes back decades.
Benzos under the brand name Valium first came to Northern Ireland
in the late 1960s.
It soon became the perfect pill for treating shattered nerves.
Prescription pads were used as widely as the bombs and bullets.
The contents of a pill bottle served as
a form of chemical therapy for the Troubles.
The world kept turning, but Northern Ireland's attachment
to what's now called diazepam remains unchanged.
We have a consistently high number of benzo prescriptions here,
more than double the rest of the UK and the Republic,
with parts of Belfast at four times the rate.
It's most heavily used as a prescription drug in deprived areas.
Gabriel Cush's day revolves around diazepam.
Current medical guidelines say patients should take diazepam
no longer than four to six weeks.
Gabriel has been taking it daily for 30 years.
'Prescribed the drug
'back when it was considered safe for long-term use,
'he is now too dependent to be taken off it.'
Five or ten minutes, then they kick in.
-It relaxes you.
Earlier on I started to get a bit of jitteriness.
I need them. Every day.
It's terrible to have a life like that, your life's ruined.
'According to some studies, Gabriel's long-term use
'puts him at greater risk of cancer and dementia.
'Even though his diazepam dosage has been reduced in recent years,
'he says he can't quit.'
When you wake up in the morning, what's your first thought?
Straight to the tablets.
First thing a cup of coffee,
and tablets into me, and a smoke.
-And the last thing at night?
To help me to get through the night.
I feel sorry I had started them
and I wish I had've knew more about them, what I know now.
But I can't do nothing about it, because I'm hooked on them now.
Gabriel sticks to his dosage prescribed by his GP,
but others choose to top up with black-market pills.
I have conversations often about people
being able to readily purchase blues and yellows on any street corner.
On any day of the week.
You're telling me if I came in here
and asked you for a script for diazepam
and you said no, I could head down to the corner and get some?
Well, I wouldn't suggest that, but certainly that's available.
I have been put in the position where people say,
"If you don't give them to me, I'll buy them.
"And I would rather get them from you
"because I don't know what is in the bag
"that I'm going to get from down the corner."
But that's very much, well, that's your choice.
I'm quickly learning there is no shortage
of black-market benzos in Belfast.
I handed over cash for 100 pills in that first transaction
and now I have got another offer from another dealer, Liam.
Home delivery is also his calling card.
As PSNI officers marshal crowds who have come to see
the Olympic flame arriving in Belfast,
Liam turns up with my pills.
'In fact, while we're making the exchange PSNI officers pass by.
'The possibility of being arrested for dealing drugs
'is not what Liam is concerned about,
'he's more worried about getting a parking ticket.'
That's two deliveries in as many days.
So, this is my second home delivery.
The packaging isn't as professional, if you like, as the first one.
But the principle is the same.
100 benzos delivered right to my door.
These pills aren't like others sold in the UK.
Many black-market prescription drugs come from overseas.
Both batches I've bought appear to have been made in Sri Lanka.
There are a number of medications
which are coming in from a variety of sources.
Through the internet.
Many of these are produced on the subcontinent.
Unfortunately once you start manufacturing
without the standards that are required by law,
then different fillers are used,
different tableting processes.
All sorts of binders, all sorts of things added in,
and that is the difference. You have no idea what you're getting,
because it is not a licensed product.
I can't be sure what I've bought is the real thing,
so I'm sending some of my pills to Dublin for professional testing.
I need to know if they're genuine diazepam and not duds.
Biochemist Dr Jack Bloomfield is experienced in testing
and analysing all kinds of drug compounds.
It doesn't take long for him to identify my pills.
It's telling us that it is diazepam.
It is diazepam, and it's 99% sure it's diazepam.
-That's pretty sure.
-That's pretty sure.
Our analysis is very clear.
These little blue tablets, that they don't have a number on them
to say that they're ten milligrams
or five milligrams or whatever.
But I believe that these are ten-milligram diazepams.
These pills are all properly manufactured medical doses of diazepam.
Well, now I know for sure that what was delivered to my door
are, in fact, diazepam.
Just under ten milligrams of the active ingredient in each one of those small, little blue pills.
But bear in mind that to normally buy diazepam in any circumstances,
you need to go to your GP where you're given a script,
and you go to a pharmacist where it's dispensed to you.
I'm getting a class C, what is a controlled drug,
delivered to my door in as much of the quantity as I can afford to buy.
Last year, 36 people died in Northern Ireland
from misuse of benzos.
Deaths have been increasing over the last decade,
and that's a concern for those who are living with the grief.
It's been seven years since you buried Matthew.
Do you think the problem has got worse?
I think it's getting worse.
My question is whether the criminal justice system is in any sense
alert to the real dangers here.
In fact, I think the criminal justice system has completely abandoned people
to the vicious exploitation of these dealers,
that the criminal justice system is not protecting the young
and the innocent and the vulnerable from the viciousness of dealers.
So who is responsible for stopping diazepam from reaching the streets,
particularly when it's clearly come from outside Northern Ireland?
Finding out proved more challenging than buying benzos.
I first contacted the Border Force,
which is responsible for securing the UK's borders.
They told me that here, the Department Of Health is the lead agency,
so I did as advised and contacted the Department Of Health,
who then said the Border Agency are primarily responsible
for security of UK borders,
including vigilance against the importation of prohibited substances.
The Border Agency chose not to be interviewed,
but accepted they could seize goods.
There are a number of agencies involved,
the PSNI, the Department Of Health, the Border Agency,
but there's always a chain of command.
WHO is in charge?
The Border Agency are ultimately in charge
of what is coming in over the UK border.
We will take the lead from the UK Border Agency
in terms of the investigation and prosecution of offences
that we've identified.
-But they have to pass the case on to you?
I've seen for myself that dealers are selling imported drugs
unlicensed for here, so where is the weak link?
Given what they're doing and what we observed,
on the face of it, it does seem pretty easy to sell and to buy.
They may feel as if they're immune to the law,
but I can assure the public that the PSNI are rigorously investigating
people involved in the importation of controlled drugs,
and the situation is that importing, selling or supplying
any form of drugs, class C, diazepam in particular,
carries a penalty of up to 14 years in prison.
I spoke to an addict from Belfast's Shankill Road.
We agreed to disguise his identity,
because, he says, he's under threat from loyalist paramilitaries.
But he's not afraid of police.
Sure, there's nothing they can do.
I mean, certain things, sometimes they take them off you
and things like that, but...
in all honesty, peelers are wasting their time.
A peeler wouldn't even worry about taking a couple of yellows or blues off you.
Because everybody takes blues. And everybody takes yellows. Everybody.
-How many do you take?
-Two or three in the morning.
-With a glass of water?
-A glass of juice or something, aye.
A few joints, maybe something to eat.
Later on in the afternoon, maybe another couple of tablets.
And after that, just take whatever you're taking for the night.
-Maybe ten. Just sit there all night.
-In one go or...?
-Aye. I'll maybe just split them up.
I'd take three and then a cup of tea.
You get a better hit with a joint and a cup of tea. Kick in quicker.
They hit you, know what I mean?
When you crunch the tablets, they dissolve quicker inside you,
so they start affecting you quicker.
How do you know it's starting to kick in? Describe it for me.
Just feel like you're... HE EXHALES SHARPLY
When you go to sit forward, it feels like somebody pulling your head back.
When you go to lift off a seat and stand up, you're like... HE EXHALES CONTENTEDLY
-To the side.
-Do you like that feeling?
You're mellowed out, know what I mean? You've no worries.
All the bad things that you worry about just seem to be away.
You're just sort of blanking everything out.
That's what you're using it for.
'But that sensation comes at a cost.'
What we know is that if someone buys diazepam over the internet,
what we tend to find is that when they're bought,
people don't tend to take them in ones and twos.
They'll take them in tens and twenties.
And the effects then, psychologically and physically, can be quite profound.
I mean, we are talking about fairly significant dosages.
They'll describe then that as time goes on, that they'll continue
to drink and use drugs,
that they usually will find
that there are gaps then in their memory, that they can't remember
the later part of the evening, earlier part of the morning.
Some people will say to you, "The next thing
"I remember is finding myself in a cell or in a casualty department."
And the bit in-between will be extremely vague.
I definitely believe that normal diazepam prescribed off a doctor
and the illegal ones, there's a different reaction with them the next day.
You always seem to wake up in a bad mood. When you get up,
you're still feeling the effects from the night before.
You'd think you hadn't been asleep. You're, like, all over the show.
You're walking all disorientated and, like, dead snappy and dead angry.
While I've been learning about the effects of diazepam,
I'm still getting messages from internet dealers.
Now, the latest one says he can't deliver,
so he's asked me to go to him.
He's offering me pills in a blister pack.
They're more prized,
because most users think they're less likely to be fake.
-Come back here cos I don't, like, I don't know that area,
you know what I mean?
'This dealer calls himself Stephen. He clearly knows what he's doing is illegal.
'Not only is he concerned about being seen,
'he also thinks he's being careful about leaving evidence.'
Yeah, well, look...
'One sale over, Stephen is keen to set me up for other purchases.
'He'd like my diazepam purchase to be a gateway to other drugs.'
In just over a week, I managed to pocket 400 pills.
At the maximum safe medical dose,
that's enough for more than three months.
But I could have at least doubled that number,
because each dealer I bought from was ready to sell me more
within a matter of days.
I've established how easy it is to buy benzos.
What I want to know now is how the pills got to Northern Ireland.
-How're you doing?
-Not bad, you?
-Good, good, how are you keeping?
Have you been busy?
Business is good?
So show me what you've got.
Hang on now. I'll just count this out.
This is the 20, 30, the 40.
I didn't take the fiver this time, and you're giving me this stuff.
-This is the same stuff as the last time, isn't it? And this is the prescription drugs?
And this is the stuff that definitely is diazepam.
Now is a good time to tell you, I'm Jennifer O'Leary.
I'm a reporter for BBC Spotlight. I just wanted to find out from you,
from where are you getting these drugs?
-You know that this is illegal?
This prescription drug...
See if you don't get the camera out of my face, there'll be...
There's no licence to sell this in the UK. Can you tell me from where you're getting drugs from?
I can indeed, yeah.
You know it's an offence to sell or supply what are class C drugs
to people, you're aware of that, aren't you?
-You find this funny, selling drugs?
-You know this is illegal activity?
-I do indeed.
Are you worried about the PSNI at any stage?
Well, it sure is easy to sell prescription drugs
like this on the streets, but, as we clearly have seen there,
he doesn't want to answer any hard questions.
I want to find out what Liam had to say about selling me
100 black-market pills.
I arranged to meet him again.
-I'm Jennifer O'Leary, I'm a reporter for BBC Spotlight.
-This is what you sold me.
-Just to confirm that these are illicit drugs
and you're doing it illegally. You're not going to answer any questions?
You know it's illegal to sell these?
Well, again, just to prove that these are illicit drugs,
we have tested these in the laboratory.
They are in fact diazepam. It's illegal to sell class C drugs.
He has sold them to me, but won't answer any questions.
No surprise there, really.
'Posing online again, I asked Mick 2012 to phone me.'
When I revealed my identity, he said his pills came from a GP.
But we know that's a lie.
The 400 pills I bought appear to have been legitimately manufactured abroad.
Not even one is licensed for sale in the UK.
We traced Stephen's blister packs to a reputable factory
in Benin, in West Africa.
The manufacturer told us they came from a batch of nearly ten million pills processed four years ago,
and sold to the governments of Burkina Faso and Cameroon.
Licensed only in Africa,
but somehow ending up for sale on the streets of Northern Ireland.
'I'm on my way to safely dispose of all the drugs I've bought.'
No-one knows the true scale of diazepam dependence
in Northern Ireland.
Nor does anyone know just how many of these drugs are being imported.
'The PSNI doesn't even publish figures for the amount of class C drugs it seizes.
'A conviction for selling diazepam illegally
'carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years,
'and a potentially unlimited fine.
'But on the face of it, the penalties for importing
'and selling pills don't cause dealers to lose any sleep.'
A dealer convicted of attempting to sell prescription drugs
to Matthew Lyle just before he died was already on a suspended sentence
when he came to court. He was given another suspended sentence.
The judge said that because the amount of drugs was so small,
that that had to be mitigation.
But hold on a second, we now know that even the tiniest amounts
of drugs, taken in combination, can be fatal.
So what's the small quantity got to do with anything?
So the dangers here are dangers for everybody. For all of society.
There isn't a family that is not potentially vulnerable here.
Gabriel Cush accepts that he will be taking diazepam
for the rest of his life.
Plagued by long-term diazepam dependence,
he is looking at a different generation misusing powerful prescription pills.
For young lads to do that, I think it's sad.
They don't know what they're messing with.
And I just wish to God they would go off it,
and to see the other dangers, there's other dangers in the future.
They should be looking forward.
Instead of doubling down another tablet...
for the next fix.
They may have started life as medicine,
but these little pills can bring death and misery.
Their overuse in Northern Ireland has long been a tragic legacy
But sold on the internet and pushed on young people,
they are today a growing threat to the next generation,
carry-out drugs, death brought to the door.
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