Concerns have been raised about the use of 'legal highs' among homeless people in Belfast as details emerged of a second death linked to a deadly substance designed to mimic the effects of cannabis.
Hostel resident Adrian Thompson, originally from Dundalk, Co Louth, died in Belfast's Castle Place on February 24 2016, weeks before Catherine Kenny was found dead in a doorway a short distance away in Donegall Place. An inquest this month into the death of Ms Kenny, from Downpatrick, heard how the 32-year-old died on April 19 as a result of consuming alcohol and smoking a “synthetic cannabinoid” known as MDMB-CHMICA.
The toxic chemical has been linked to a spate of deaths across Europe, and is designed to provide a high similar to cannabis.
An inquest into the death of 49-year-old father-of-one Mr Thompson will take place at a later date. Relatives attended a preliminary hearing in Belfast last week. The full inquest is expected to hear how Mr Thompson's death was caused by consuming drugs, including taking a similar synthetic cannabinoid to that of his friend Ms Kenny.
The UK's Psychoactive Substances Bill came into force last year to ban such former ‘legal highs' not covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act, but according to a homeless charity, they are easily available and popular among those sleeping rough in Belfast. Donna Connor, of the Hope for Homeless organisation, said she has seen first hand the effects of the synthetic cannabinoids – which are often sold with brand names including ‘Sky High'.
“The effects are instantaneous, and it's the worst I've ever seen,” she said. “But it's common, and we cannot stress enough to users the dangers they face. We ask them ‘do you want to be the next to die like Catherine?' but some explain to us that despite these risks, it's their coping mechanism to help them get through the night. With no rehabilitation facilities available, without joining a waiting list weeks long, then it can be almost impossible to get off these drugs.”
A spokeswoman for the Welcome Organisation, which also works to help the homeless, said: "We have also seen first hand the devastation such dugs cause individuals and their families."
Speaking with the Irish News, Adrian Thompson's mother Elizabeth said drugs had been the downfall of her son, who had been staying at a shelter run by the Salvation Army before his death. “We tried getting him off drugs, but we didn't know exactly what he was taking. In the end he went to Belfast and tried making his own way in life. We were waiting for someone to come to the door with tragic news, and eventually they did.
“He was a generous and good-hearted fella, and he always had a home here in Dundalk, but sadly we couldn't get him to come back.”
By Paul Ainsworth - the Irish Times/Jan. 23, 2017
Photo: montage of Irish News photos