TD: No political will to tackle benzos

Former drugs minister Róisín Shortall has said the Government does not have “the political will” to implement two-year-old plans to tackle legal drugs implicated in over 150 deaths a year.

The ex-minister of state at the Department of Health said there had been “no progress” on plans she signed off on in September 2012 to crack down on the booming street trade in prescription medication.

Benzodiazepines were implicated in over a third of all drug overdoses in 2012, or 123 of the 350 poisoning deaths.

So called z-drugs, which are hypnotics or sleeping tablets, were implicated in a further 27 deaths in 2012.

In 2011, the figures were even worse, with ‘benzos’ involved in 173 deaths and z-drugs involved in 31 deaths.

The figures, from the National Drug-Related Deaths Index, were contained in a report published last week by the Health Research Board.

Dr Suzi Lyons said the increase in deaths from benzos had been “quite dramatic”, doubling from 64 in 2004.

“Prescription drugs are second only to alcohol in terms of damage to society,” said Ms Shortall. “It is clear that prescription drugs pose a very serious threat and are being widely abused.”

Other HRB data shows that treatment figures for benzos, as a person’s main drug of addiction, jumped seven fold since 2005, from 75 cases in 2005 to 547 in 2012.

Ms Shortall said almost three years ago she set up a group to address the issue, including gardaí, customs, the HSE, and pharmacists.

She said it came up with two recommendations: “One was on restrictions on prescriptions and the other was unregulated importation — both over the internet and people bringing it back into the country.”

Ms Shortall said draft regulations were ready in September 2012: “I signed off on them. The wording had to be worked on that’s all.”

She said they were to go to cabinet and to the European Commission for notification. She said the projected date for completing the regulations was January 2013.

She said “for some reason” the draft regulations were not published until September 2013.

As well as stricter prescribing and dispensing controls, the regulations also propose new offences for possessing benzodiazepines without entitlement and formal import and export controls.

Leo Varadkar, the health minister, recently told Ms Shortall that after further consultation a number of “legislative issues” were raised.

He said further work was required and that the objective was to finalise the draft regulations in the new year, followed by the EU notification.

Ms Shortall said: “There is no sense of urgency at all. This is at the same stage as it was two years ago. It is quite clear nothing has happened. There doesn’t seem to be the political will to tackle this.”

She added: “One must ask if there are vested interests coming into play here.”

Responding to queries from the Irish Examiner, the department said: “Draft amendment regulations have been prepared following extensive consultation with key stakeholders. Some further work is required and the objective is to finalise the text of the regulations early next year.

“Once the regulations are ready, they are subject to a three-month EU notification period under the Technical Standards Directive, because of the implications of the proposed regulatory changes on trade in pharmaceutical products.”

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