IT is a parent’s worst nightmare.
Just a day after Sandra Foster Larmour dropped “beautiful princess” Jeni, 18, off for her freshers’ week at Newcastle University, she was dead.
Horrifyingly, the teen’s death was no freak event.
Vivacious Jeni, deputy head girl and a chorister at school, was one of four youngsters to be killed by drugs in Tyneside in just one weekend this month.
A second 18-year-old fresher living in the same student village, a 21-year-old at Northumbria University and 18-year-old Mark Johnston from nearby Washington also lost their lives.
Drugs deaths blighting Britain
And the tragedy sweeping the region is one of a growing number of devastating drugs deaths blighting the UK.
Drugs that are either far stronger than users expect, or cut with dangerous substances, are circulating in increasing numbers as dealers strive to keep up with rising demand.
These so-called “bad batches” are being pushed on social media to inexperienced users who, bored by lockdown, are turning to drugs.
The result is a spiralling number of drug deaths – the most recent official figures show that 2,917 deaths from illicit drugs were recorded in England and Wales in 2018, a rise of 17 per cent.
According to Office for National Statistics figures, 92 people died from MDMA and ecstasy poisoning that year, more than doubling in a decade.
Coke & ecstasy use soaring
So, why is it happening?
Disturbingly, 25 years after ecstasy victim Leah Betts’s death made the country sit up and start taking the dangers of party drugs seriously, cocaine and ecstasy use is on the rise.
In 2018/19, 3.7 per cent of Brits aged 16 to 59 admitted taking Class A drugs – up from 3.5 per cent the year before. It’s the highest number since figures were first calculated in 1996.
Today, it is all too easy to get hold of drugs thanks to social media.
In Newcastle – where Jeni died on October 3 – students have been targeted by dealers handing out their Snapchat contact details on stickers and Instagram profiles on business cards.
One student, who lives in accommodation close to the scene of the tragedy, added: “Some of my friends have had cards slipped under their door.”
It’s a familiar story across the country, where buying narcotics in the gig economy age has never been easier.
‘Polite’ dealers operating dial-a-drug services
Describing a dial-a-drug service, one South London MDMA user told me: “There’s a trusted number you call. Within the hour a dealer – or their courier – arrives outside your house.
“You sit in the car with him and the guy’s not like some scary gangster from the movies.
“He’s polite and welcoming – you could imagine him working on the front desk at a bank asking whether you’d like to open a new savings account.”
Another uses WhatsApp to order cocaine: “Once I said I wanted it at a specific time at my house because I was planning a Game of Thrones-watching marathon. The guy arrived bang on time and the deal was done in seconds.”
Add to this fatal mix boredom induced by lockdown and a lack of places for young people to party. To let off steam, they are turning to drugs instead.
Since Covid it’s been just house parties among friends and get f***ed there. I don’t think about the dangers even though I’ve nearly overdosed
Harry, 21, a labourer from Coventry, takes a mixture of MDMA, cocaine, ketamine and tranquiliser Xanax every weekend, bought on the dark web.
He said: “Since Covid it’s been just house parties among friends and get f***ed there.
“I don’t think about the dangers even though I’ve nearly overdosed.”
With a growing customer base, unscrupulous dealers – who are finding importing drugs harder thanks to tough lockdown restrictions – are said to be cutting their product with dubious substances.
It’s one theory put forward in the wake of Jeni Larmour’s death.
One Newcastle fresher said: “The word around the student village is that a bad batch of pills has been offered around and some people have got hold of them.”
Lethal pills in disguise
Around a quarter of drugs aren’t what users think they are, according to a recent study by harm reduction charity The Loop.
They found some pills that were sold as MDMA or ecstasy turned out to be n-ethylpentylone, which has been linked to overdoses.
And some ketamine was found to be 2-FDCK, a synthetic drug around one-and-a-half times more powerful.
Just as dangerous as drugs cut with unknown substances are those which are super strength.
Harry Shapiro, director of Drugwise, said: “What’s a good batch? That’s the point.
“There is no doubt there is stronger ecstasy in the street in the last decade than there was during the Leah Betts era in 1995.”
While the only safe option is not to take drugs at all, charities are advising those who decide to take the risk not to swallow a whole pill, but to break it into bits and take cautiously.
Impact of lockdown
What is particularly dangerous about today’s circumstances, with clubs and festivals shut down by lockdown, is that youngsters are taking these potent substances behind closed doors – where they struggle to get help if they find themselves in trouble.
Jeni died in her student halls – hours after her loving mum dropped her off.
Mr Shapiro told The Sun that lockdowns have increased the dangers for young drug takers.
He said: “When you have a situation where few venues are open and young people are quarantined in a room then there’s no doubt the risk goes up.
“There’s no chance of an experienced first responder or drug worker like you have at festivals for example.
“If they’re 18 and weren’t even born when Leah Betts died when there was a lot of publicity about all of this then it’s not surprising you’re going to have tragedies.”
So, what can be done?
In Northumbria, police have acted quickly following the recent spate of deaths, arresting 11, searching student digs with sniffer dogs and increasing patrols nearby.
But authorities know that no matter how hard they crack down, some young people will be unable to resist the allure of illegal drugs.
The National Crime Agency’s head of operations against drugs admitted last year that the narcotics trade won’t be halted by more arrests.
Vince O’Brien said: “While there is a user base willing to spend millions and millions of pounds worth on drugs, which represent millions and millions of pounds worth of profit, then we will have an issue with illicit drugs in this country.
“We can’t arrest our way out of that anymore than we can arrest our way out of serious violence. We need to tackle the drivers behind it.”
Bereaved mum Janine Milburn instead wants drug-testing facilities made widely available to keep youngsters safe.
She lost her 18-year-old daughter Georgia Jones to an MDMA overdose at Portsmouth’s Mutiny festival in May 2018.
Care assistant Janine, 43, from Havant, said: “I met the ambulance at the festival and travelled in the front while they worked on Georgia in the back.
“I managed to say goodbye to her just before the life support machines were turned off.
“Georgia was a typical 18-year-old like Jeni seems to have been. An outgoing child with loads of friends.”
I managed to say goodbye to my daughter just before the life support machines were turned off
Janine believes that narcotic testing alongside advice from drug experts would save lives.
She said: “Georgia told us when she was going in and out of consciousness that she’d taken two pills.
“Her autopsy revealed her pills were six times stronger than normal. People think it’s a bad batch when a lot of the time it’s actually a pure dose which kills them.
“If she’d known the strength of those pills she’d likely be alive today.”
Through her charity – Georgia Jones Don’t Go With The Flo – Janine educates youngsters.
She said: “The best thing to do is not take drugs at all but if you do then stay safe – like just taking a quarter of a tablet if you’re not sure of the strength.”
The Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain have government-funded drug-testing services.
Calls for action
NGO The Loop has organised some pop up testing and advice at festivals in the UK.
Maddie Roberts, 20, who studies Business at Newcastle University, has launched a petition calling for free drug testing kits on campus.
She said: “People who are doing drugs can make more informed and safer decisions, and if the tests say they have something dangerous in it they can choose not to do it – that can save lives.”
Police investigating the Newcastle deaths say it is “too early” to say whether a “bad batch of drugs” was involved.
But whether or not the drugs were contaminated, it is obvious a toxic combination of circumstances made them lethal.
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Northumbria’s Chief Inspector Steve Wykes said: “Illegal drugs are never safe and the danger that they pose cannot be under-estimated.”
Today, Jeni Larmour should have been excitedly meeting new friends as she embarked on her architecture and urban planning course.
Instead, she is just one more young life lost to the grim lottery of drugs.