Counterfeit sleeping pills: a dangerous path for Northern Ireland

Prescription form with pills and pen with on blue. Top view. Medical concept.

According to the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB), a statutory organisation which arrange health and social care services for the population of Northern Ireland, the latest figures showed that the number of deaths from benzodiazepines has increased to more than one a week, with 63 recorded in 2015[2].
Joe Brogan, Assistant Director Pharmacy and Medicines Management at the HSCB explained that “The Board has received a number of reports of increasing use of alprazolam (brand Xanax®) even though this drug is rarely prescribed by GPs in Northern Ireland. Reports also suggest that counterfeit benzodiazepines are circulating”[3].
The organisation can’t stress enough the fact that there is a great danger in using drugs from unauthorised sources, such as the internet or the street. The internet is specially reported to account for the increase in the availability of benzodiazepines. Yet counterfeit benzodiazepines are likely to contain unpredictable doses and therefore those taking them are at a higher risk of overdosing[4]. The issue is well-known; Operation Pangea X, led by INTERPOL in 2017, particularly illustrated the extent of the problem, and it remains the largest operation against an illicit online pharmacy to this day.
A lucrative traffic across the country involving wholesale dealers and registered pharmacies
In 2016, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), an executive agency sponsored by the Department of Health and Social Care of the United Kingdom, was conducting a large scale investigation into the diversion of prescription medications to the criminal market. MHRA became aware of a significant diversion of benzodiazepines and other hypnotics/anxiolytics. Their investigations led to the arrest of two pharmacists: they had acquired 200,000 packs of benzodiazepines and other drugs[5]. Today MHRA is still pursuing its investigation.

“Between 2013 and 2016, an estimated £115-200m of medicines were diverted from the legitimate supply chain onto the criminal market, putting thousands of vulnerable people at risk”[6].

Throughout 2017, they have made more than 40 arrests: “Our investigations have revealed an extensive network of criminality involving businesses such as wholesale dealers and a small number of registered pharmacies throughout the UK diverting medicines”.
Consequently, it remains a vast issue for the authorities.

[1] Benzodiazepines include diazepam, nitrazepam, temazepam and alprazolam.
[2] « Deaths due to misuse of diazepam-type drugs are on the rise, health chiefs warn », Michael McHugh, The Irish News, January 2018.
[3] HSC Board and PHA issue drug safety warning, January 2017.
[4] The Blanchardstown Drugs and Alcohol Task Force, September 2017.
[5] « Regulator investigating the diversion of prescription only medicines », Press release of MHRA,, December 2016.
[6] « MHRA cracking down on organised crime worth £200m », Press release of MHRA,, January 2018.

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