Community workers have told Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, the drugs minister, that some young street dealers are making up to €1,000 a week selling the tablets.
Independent TD Maureen O’Sullivan said community drug and youth projects were struggling to cope with the “aggression” and “chaotic nature” of people consuming these tablets, often taking them with alcohol and other substances.
It comes as figures supplied to the Irish Examiner show that almost 400,000 illicit sedative drugs were seized in 2013 — a 150% jump on 2010 figures.
These include benzodiazepines, a group of tranquillisers, and so-called Z drugs, or hypnotics, like Zopiclone and Zimovane.
Health Protection Regulatory Authority figures show that 154,581 tablets were seized in 2010, rising to 165,843 in 2011, 291,167 in 2012, and 393,318 in 2013.
Plans by the Department of Health to tackle the illicit trade in these legitimate medicines were prepared by former drugs minister Róisín Shortall in September 2012, following consultations between the gardaí, customs officials, the HSE, and pharmacists. The projected date for completing the regulations was January 2013.
Ms O’Sullivan said the reality of the illicit tablet crisis was made clear to Mr Ó Ríordáin at a recent meeting of the Dublin North Inner City Local Drugs Task Force. “The scale of the problem was certainly brought home to the current minister,” she said.
“It was spelled out very forcibly by projects about the massive increase in tablets and he was told by gardaí how their hands are tied by the lack of legislation.”
Ms O’Sullivan, a TD in Dublin Central, said one mother told the meeting how teenagers could make up to €1,000 a week selling tablets and other drugs on the street. “Not all will make that, but some do, and that has a knock on effect on kids in the area,” she said.
She called for mini-CABs (Criminal Asset Bureaus) to target the local dealers who are showing off their wealth in front of young people.
A senior Garda source said the illicit trade in tablets was “a major problem” and that there had been a massive increase in the involvement by organised crime gangs in the trade because the tablets were “so cheap and profitable”.
Gardaí have dismantled at least one illegal manufacturing plant, operated by a criminal gang.
The Irish Examiner reported last April that the number of people seeking treatment for benzodiazepines as their main drug of abuse jumped from 261 in 2009 to 719 in 2013 — a rise of 175%. This does not include situations where benzodiazepines are the secondary drug of abuse; for example, after heroin.
The trend is reflected across the country. In Dublin, the figures doubled, from 115 to 233; while in Cork they almost trebled, from 46 to 132. Waterford figures increased nearly eightfold, from eight to 62, while in Limerick, the numbers rose from 13 to 51.
The National Drugs- Related Deaths Index shows benzodiazepines were involved in 123 overdose deaths in 2012 — some 35% of all poisonings. Z-drugs were implicated in a further 27 deaths.
The Department of Health said that during consultation, some medical practitioners and advocacy groups raised concerns about introducing tighter controls on prescriptions for this category of medication.
A department spokesman said an amendment bill to the Misuse of Drugs Act had to be brought in before regulations on benzodiazepines and Z-drugs could be enacted. “It is intended to have this bill published and enacted later this year.”
He said once enacted, it is intended to bring forward regulations in relation to the tablets, which would be subject to a three-month EU notification period.