New laws to combat the street sale of tranquillisers are expected to form part of a government action plan to be published this year.
Drugs strategy minister Roisín Shortall said she had set up a high-level group within the Department of Health to address the problems associated with the abuse of benzodiazepines.
These are tranquillisers and anti-anxiety tablets legally prescribed. They are also imported in massive quantities, including over the internet.
Drug organisations and health experts have raised concerns over their usage for well over a decade. The problem has escalated in recent years and has spread across the country, where they are being abused by adults and young people, typically in combination with other drugs, including heroin and methadone, and alcohol.
Speaking at the launch of a strategic plan by Coolmine Therapeutic Community, Ms Shortall said all the reports from communities indicated benzodiazepines were second only to alcohol as the drug causing most problems.
Ms Shortall said she had asked the HSE to examine prescribing patterns among GPs, which she said they had done. She said they had written to the GPs based on this analysis and were writing to them again this month to see what changes they had made.
She said in addition to over-prescribing by GPs there was also a “hidden” problem of GPs writing private prescriptions, which weren’t necessarily showing up on HSE records.
Ms Shortall said street dealing of benzodiazepines was a major problem.
She said the group was examining “greater legislative control” regarding the amount of tablets people could legally have in their possession in a bid to combat dealing.
She said garda and customs representatives sat on the group, along with representatives from the pharmaceutical union and the Irish Medicines Board.
The minister commended the rehabilitation work of Coolmine, which is celebrating 40 years in existence and thought to be the oldest voluntary drug project in the country.
Coolmine chairman Brian Ward said more than 20% of referrals to the Dublin-based organisation were coming from Cork City and county.
CEO Paul Conlon also called on Ms Shortall to find €100,000 to allow Coolmine to take in 15 women with babies who are struggling to overcome addiction. He said by doing so, the Government would potentially save over €200,000 which may be otherwise spent on prison, social services and state care services for children.
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