Laws have been brought into force empowering gardaí to combat the booming trade in sedatives and sleeping tablets.
Doctors will also have to comply with far more strict regulations regarding the prescribing of these medications, to avoid leakage onto the black market.
The long-awaited laws —first drawn up in 2013 — will include benzodiazepines, a group of anti-anxiety drugs, and Z-drugs, hypnotic medication, under the scope of the Misuse of Drugs Act.
The regulations, commenced yesterday by drugs minister Catherine Byrne, mean that restrictions that apply to drugs like heroin and cannabis will now apply to these substances.
Possession, as well as sale, will be a crime if a person does not have a specific prescription.
Gardaí and drug projects have highlighted the effects of these drugs on the street for many years.
“You stand outside the local [methadone] clinic in the morning and there is a crowd outside openly selling these drugs and there is little we can do,” said one senior garda in Dublin.
Another garda source said there has been a “huge increase” in the involvement of organised crime in the trade.
Benzodiazepines were involved in around 40% of poisonings in 2013, according to the National Drug-Related Deaths Index. Diazepam and Flurazepam were involved in 151 poisoning deaths in 2013 and Zopiclone in 51 deaths.
Treatment figures for benzodiazepines rose from 261 in 2009 to 719 in 2013.
Quantities of benzodiazepines seized rose 11-fold between 2013 and 2015, from around 36,000 to more than 410,000, and six-fold for Z-drugs, from just over 126,000 to almost 795,000.
In a statement, the Department of Health said: “The most significant effect of the new Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2017 is in relation to benzodiazepines (such as diazepam) and ‘z-drug’ sleeping tablets (such as zopiclone and zolpidem). The restrictions already in place on possession and import of other controlled drugs will not apply to benzodiazepines and z-drugs.”
It said a “higher standard of prescription will be required”, affecting GPs and chemists.
Tony Duffin of Ana Liffey Drug Project said the laws will have an impact on users: “We know that when changes such as these are implemented there is always the potential for unintended consequences.
“For example, if there is a temporary drought in benzodiazepine and z-type drugs, what drugs will replace them? The market will respond and we must also be ready to respond quickly.”
He added: “We look forward to a time when legislation is introduced to respond to drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue. That time is not far off.”
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