Seizures of benzodiazepines, a group of anti-anxiety medication, jumped 11-fold between 2013 and 2015, while seizures of so-called Z-drugs, a group of hypnotics, rose six-fold in the same time period.
Statistics provided by the Health Products Regulatory Authority show:
- Seized quantities of benzodiazepines jumped from 36,263, in 2013, to 160,175, in 2014 and to 413,203, in 2015;
- Seized quantities of Z-drugs increased from 126,292, in 2013, to 156,251, in 2014, soaring to 794,769, in 2015.
Zopiclone accounts for most of the drugs seized in this category.
The HPRA targets the illicit trade in these medications, which are legal when prescribed. Many of its operations are in conjunction with customs and with gardaí.
Garda sources said that organised crime gangs have moved in to control the supply of the illicit trade in prescription drugs.
“Benzos are a major problem, with a huge increase in organised crime involved in the supply and manufacture of benzos and Z-drugs,” said a garda source.
They are consumed in large quantities by drug-users who have a severe addiction, often to a range of substances, including heroin, methadone, and alcohol.
The medications feature in a range of databases — from drug-treatment figures, to drug-related deaths and, more recently, to drug driving.
Benzodiazepines were involved in 40% of poisonings in 2013, according to the National Drug-Related Deaths Index.
Diazepam and flurazepam (which are benzodiazepines) were the main drugs in 151 poisoning deaths in 2013, while zopiclone was the main drug in 51 deaths.
Official statistics show a massive increase in the numbers of people in treatment whose main drugs of abuse were benzodiazepines, rising from 261, in 2009, to 719, in 2013, a rise of 175%.
Last month, a report by the Road Safety Authority found that prescription drugs were involved in 30% of road fatalities, benzodiazepines being the main medication.
Laws clamping down on the illicit trade in prescription medicines — first drawn up in 2013 — were passed in the Oireachtas last July, but commencement of the provisions is still awaited.
Last September, drugs strategy minister, Catherine Byrne, said the act would be commenced, when associated regulations were ready. She said this should happen “within the coming weeks”.
A statement from the Department of Health said further work was being undertaken on the regulations, which was at an advanced stage and would be finalised “very shortly”.
Perils of buying medicine on internet
The body responsible for regulating the sale of medicines has warned the public not to buy prescription drugs by mail order.
The caution follows a report by a Cork radio station, which revealed that Facebook users were buying and selling drugs to treat anxiety and depression.
Using an alias, a researcher for the Opinion Line programme, which airs on 96FM, agreed to purchase Xanax tablets from a person offering the prescription drug through a Facebook buy-and-sell group.
The programme also reported that steroids were readily available through the same channels.
The Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) works in conjunction with the Revenue’s Customs Service, and An Garda Síochána, to monitor and investigate instances of illegal supply of prescription medicines through retail sales in Ireland and via the internet.
A spokesperson for the HPRA said that it enforces against suspected breaches of the law.
“Under Irish law, the sale of prescription-only medicines by mail order is prohibited,” the HPRA said.
“This includes the internet. Any offer by an online supply outlet of a prescription medicine, without the need for a prescription, is not a legitimate pharmacy in any EU member state, or, if it is, it will be acting outside of EU/national legislation.
“New regulations came into effect in Ireland in 2015, which provide for the supply, at a distance, of non-prescription medicines by means of information society services.
“In Ireland, this will require that the supplying website be registered with the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland and that the product supplied is authorised for the Irish market,” the HPRA warned.
For further information, consumers are urged to check the HPRA leaflet, Dangers of Buying Medicines Online, which is available on its website, www.hpra.ie.