High-profile public health scares and a number of fatalities related to the use of banned synthetic drugs have done little to curb demand for the substances. There is now a boom in such purchases over the internet from foreign sites.
New figures obtained by The Irish Times show Revenue's customs officers are seizing consignments of synthetic drugs in the postal service coming from abroad at a record rate. There were 854 seizures last year and 582 in the first five months of this year. That compares to 31 seizures in 2010, the year in which head shops and their products were banned, and 163 in 2011, the first full year of the ban.
Some have been disguised as bath salts, incense and deodorisers as used to happen with some products sold in head shops. The drugs are mainly entering the State in padded envelopes in the regular postal service or private parcel services in small quantities for personal use.
However, in some cases consignments of drugs are arriving in batches of several kilos, suggesting the involvement of organised gangs. There were just five confirmed seizures of the stimulant pyrovalerone last year but the combined weight was 21kg, which could fetch up to €2 million.
Similarly, there were just three seizures of amphetamine-like stimulant 4-methylecathinone – known as drone or MCAT – but the combined weight was 8kg, and it was worth almost €1 million, suggesting trade on a commercial scale.
Last September Michael Coleman (22) and Liam Coffey (22) died in Kinsale, Co Cork, after taking a synthetic mix containing ecstasy (MDMA) and PMMA. The Health Research Board and other health authorities have issued warnings in recent years when others fell ill after taking synthetic drugs.
Revenue has seized 14 types of synthetic drugs this year. The contents of 520 packages are confirmed as particular drugs, but the contents of 62 others have yet to be confirmed. There is no way to know how many parcels have gone through the post undetected.
Most of the substances seized are stimulants that mimic the effects of drugs such as amphetamines, cocaine and ecstasy.
Amphetamines, LSD and ecstasy have been detected in recent years in the postal service in addition to the type of synthetic substances that had been sold in head shops.
Last year there were 46 seizures of ecstasy in the post, 27 of amphetamines, 15 of methamphetamines and 12 of LSD.
Gardaí say that because many of the new synthetic substances were sold in head shops before being banned in August 2010, they gained a foothold in the market and are seen as harmless by some recreational drug users.