The authorities must ensure there is “an appropriate clampdown” on anyone illegally possessing or supplying prescription drugs pregabalin and gabapentin, a former health minister has said.
The DUP’s Edwin Poots made the call as he welcomed a Home Office decision to reclassify the medicines – used to treat nerve pain, epilepsy and anxiety – as class C controlled drugs.
The misuse of pregabalin, also known by the brand name Lyrica and street name Buds, has been linked to dozens of deaths in Northern Ireland over the past couple of years, including 33 in 2017.
The move to classify pregabalin and gabapentin under the Misuse of Drugs Act from April 1 means it is now a crime to possess or supply the medicines without an appropriate prescription.
Illegally selling or supplying the drugs can now carry a prison sentence of up to 14 years and an unlimited fine.
“Clearly there is a major problem and there have been a large number of deaths associated with this drug,” Mr Poots said. “I think what they have done to go ahead and classify it is the right thing and I trust there will be an appropriate clampdown and it will not be ignored by any other authorities.
“I hope there will be a crackdown on people selling and misusing this drug and that people will realise that illegally possessing or supplying this drug will come with consequences.”
The Health and Social Care Board (HSCB), which has been working over the last number of years to highlight the risks associated with the increased misuse of a number of prescription medicines including pregabalin and gabapentin, has also welcomed the decision to classify the drugs.
The HSCB communicated its concerns to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and also the Home Office, which subsequently conducted its own investigation and a consultation which led to the change to the legislation.
The HSCB’s head of pharmacy, Joe Brogan said: “The reclassification of pregabalin and gabapentin as class C controlled drugs is a positive step in tackling the misuse of these potentially dangerous and powerful drugs.
“We recognise the devastating and debilitating impact that drug and alcohol addiction has on the lives of individuals and their families. Over the last 10 years we have seen a significant increase in the numbers of drug related deaths, often as a result of the misuse of a combination of prescription medicines, alcohol and illicit drugs such as heroin.
“Prescription drugs are potential poisons, particularly if they haven’t been prescribed for the individual by a qualified clinician, if the wrong dose is taken, if they are mixed with alcohol or other substances, or if they have come through an unregulated supply route and potentially could contain anything.”
Commenting on the decision to reclassify the drugs, a Home Office spokesperson said: “Any death related to the misuse of drugs is a tragedy, which is why we are working to tackle it through our comprehensive drug strategy.
“We accepted expert advice and the change in law will help prevent misuse and addiction to pregabalin and gabapentin.
“Meanwhile our comprehensive drug strategy is helping to tackle the illicit drug trade, protect the most vulnerable and help those with drug dependency to recover and turn their lives around.”
According to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, when pregabalin and gabapentin are used in combination with other central nervous system depressants they can cause drowsiness, sedation, respiratory failure and death.
Official figures for the UK have shown increased fatalities linked to the two medications. Pregabalin deaths increased from four in 2009 to 136 in 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics, while deaths linked to gabapentin have risen from 1 to 60 over the same period.