‘Pandemic of tragedy’: how the availability of drugs online led to the death of a 24-year-old

A father recounts how the death of his son Jason Houghton could have been prevented with tighter controls around the availability of drugs online.
Jason Houghton

Jason was with us for 24 years. We had a wonderful relationship with our son. He was a bright boy who did very well in school. When he left college, he trained as a paramedic and was one of the top in his class at university. He excelled at everything he did, and he was the life of the party.

He absolutely loved working as a paramedic with Northwest Ambulance Service. It was his dream job. We thought he was going to go on to do great things. And then his death sideswiped us out of nowhere.

As a paramedic, Jason was expected to work in shifts: four nights on, four nights off, for example. But he just couldn’t cope with the change to his circadian rhythms. He tried his best to manage, but it got to the point where he was awake 24 hours a day.

So, one of his colleagues suggested he try an over-the-counter sleep medication and recommended that he try more than the normal daily dose. But Jason found that this had a minimal effect and that he had to take more and more just to get a little sleep, to the point where he was taking dozens of these tablets in a 24-hour period.

At this point, Jason was desperate for proper rest. After researching his condition, he learned that there were other substances “out there” to buy online that he thought might help him sleep. And this is when, through sheer desperation, he began taking stronger sedatives, such as benzodiazepines, increasing the dose as his body became adjusted to the drug over time.

It’s a pandemic of tragedy; this unseen, insidious thing that’s going on, where anyone can buy controlled drugs online

Eventually, the ambulance service he worked for noticed that there was something wrong and put him on suspension. By now, he was sleeping most of the day. He was completely helpless and addicted to the “benzos”. Jason ultimately overdosed in a hotel room in Wigan on a mixture of substances purchased on websites in Europe and Asia, with the coroner ruling his death “accidental”.

As lots of addicts do, Jason hid things very well from us. He became very good at lying, which he’d never done before, not with us. In fact, he had a gradual and complete character transformation in the last 18 months of his life. He went from being outgoing and friendly, to a recluse who wasn’t interested in anything other than his next “fix”.

As a family, we feel robbed of our son. It’s a pandemic of tragedy; this unseen, insidious thing that’s going on, where anyone can buy controlled drugs online, including some prescription-only medicines.

We are convinced that if Jason hadn’t been able to access these drugs on the internet, he would still be here today. Even if he had made the transition to injecting heroin on the street, we know it can take years and years for heroin addicts to die naturally. We would have had a fighting chance to turn things around for him; a chance to get through to the authorities, a chance to make a difference and save his life. But it was all taken away from us.

Unless there are tighter controls implemented, then the problem is not going to be solved. And how many others have died since Jason, in 2014? How many more parents have grieved since then because those sites selling drugs to our kids have still been accessible at the click of a button?

Box: If you need help

If you, or someone you know, needs help with drug addiction, there are resources available:

Turning Point — health and social care services in England to support people with mental health conditions, drug and alcohol abuse, or unemployment
Website: turning-point.co.uk

Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs — a national charity that supports anyone affected by alcohol or drug use
Helpline: 08080 10 10 11
Helpline email: helpline@sfad.org.uk
Website: www.sfad.org.uk

DrugFam — an organisation offering support and care to families, friends and partners affected by someone else’s drug or alcohol use
Helpline: 0300 888 3853
Website: www.drugfam.co.uk

Icarus Trust — a charity that provides help and assistance for families and others affected by any form of addiction
Email: contact@icarustrust.org
Website: www.icarus-trust.org

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, March 2023, Vol 310, No 7971;310(7971)::DOI:10.1211/PJ.2023.1.177809

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