Government drafting law on tranquillisers


IT IS to become an offence to possess tranquillisers such as Valium, Xanax or Zimovane without a prescription, under legislation being drawn up by the Department of Health.

It will soon also be illegal to import such drugs without a licence from the Irish Medicines Board.

The new legislation and amendments to the misuse of drugs regulations have been approved by Minister of State at the Department of Health Róisín Shortall.

They come in response to the spiralling problem of prescription drugs being sold illicitly on the streets of towns and cities throughout the State, and their unauthorised importation, particularly over the internet.

Provisional, unpublished, Garda figures for drug seizures in 2011 indicate 208,682 diazepam (Valium) tablets were seized on the streets and forwarded to the Garda forensics laboratory. There were 39,083 zopiclone (Zimovane) tablets and 38,829 alprazolam (Xanax) seized.

It is generally taken that just 10 per cent of illicit street drugs are ever seized.

Similarly, unpublished figures from the Irish Medicines Board indicate that between January last year and May 23rd this year, Customs seized 146,000 tranquilliser tablets, of which almost 100,000 contained diazepam, all ordered over the internet.

According to Lord Mayor of Dublin Andrew Montague, the illicit sale of prescription drugs in the city centre, particularly around the O’Connell Street, Abbey Street and North Earl Street area, far outstrips the sale of heroin, cocaine and cannabis combined.

“The open dealing there is affecting businesses and giving the area a very bad reputation. People from Dublin and the rest of the country know it as an area they want to avoid.”

He said of the 1,500 arrests for drug-dealing in the city centre between September and December, just 60 were for selling “controlled” drugs such as heroin and cocaine.

“The problem is the gardaí are almost powerless. There is an increased Garda presence in the area, but a person cannot be prosecuted for possession of prescription drugs. Only the medicines board can take cases and they just don’t have the time or resources to do that.

“I know legislation is being drawn up to give prosecution powers to the gardaí, but we need it immediately.”

Tony Geoghegan, director of Merchants Quay Ireland, the largest independent drug treatment service in the State, agrees the prescription drugs are now as big if not a bigger problem then heroin, cocaine and cannabis.

“Polydrug use is now absolutely the norm and the prescription drugs are the major part of that, in combination with heroin, methadone and, of course, alcohol, which is probably the most dangerous mixer with benzos .”

Prescription drugs were “highly addictive” and more difficult to come off than heroin. “It takes a lot longer, is more complex, and the side-effects can be worse – convulsions and seizures.”

The major impact of their overuse, he said, was on cognitive functioning.

“There’s also a high risk of overdose,” said Mr Geoghegan.

According to the National Suicide Research Foundation, drug overdose is the most common method of self-harm, with benzodiazepines the most common drug involved.

There is just one Health Service Executive benzodiazepine detox facility in the State, at Cherry Orchard Hospital in Dublin, though Merchants Quay has just opened one at its facility in Tullow, Co Carlow. “There is a lack of treatment facilities for what is the biggest drug problem we have, and there is a lack of joined-up thinking on prescribing policy,” said Mr Geoghegan.

He pointed out sources from which users can get prescriptions – private GPs, general medical card GPs and methadone clinics.