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Don Lavoie is alcohol programme manager at Public Health England and Gul Root is lead pharmacist, Health and Wellbeing Directorate, Public Health England
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a green cross imageJanuary 30 2018

Pharmacists have been involved in schemes illicitly diverting prescription medicines such as benzodiazepines, hypnotics, and tramadol, the medicines regulator has announced.

“Between 2013 and 2016, an estimated £115-200m of medicines were diverted from the legitimate supply chain onto the criminal market,” the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency announced on Tuesday. Following 19 investigations there have been more than 40 arrests, five of which were of pharmacists who have been suspended from practising by the General Pharmaceutical Council. In addition, 12 wholesale dealers licences are understood to have been handed in or terminated.

“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,” said the MHRA. It opened its investigation “after first becoming aware of a significant diversion of benzodiazepines and other hypnotics/anxiolytics in 2016.”

Alastair Jeffrey, MHRA Head of Enforcement, said: “Selling medicines outside of the regulated supply chain is a serious criminal offence and we are working relentlessly with regulatory and law enforcement colleagues to identify and prosecute all those involved in this activity.

“The medicines being sold are potent and should only be taken under medical supervision. Criminals involved are exploiting people when they are at their most vulnerable; their only objective is to make money. We will continue to concentrate our efforts on identifying the criminals involved and ensure they are prosecuted through the courts.”

Duncan Rudkin, Chief Executive of General Pharmaceutical Council, added: “We are working closely with the MHRA on the ongoing investigations into these very serious criminal offences. We have already taken action to suspend five pharmacists under interim orders and are actively reviewing at each stage of the investigations whether we need to take further action to protect the public.

“We would also strongly urge people not to take any prescription medicines unless they have a valid prescription, as they could be putting their health at serious risk.”

A recent Home Office survey had found that “7.6% of adults had taken a prescription-only painkiller not prescribed to them.” Last week, public health minister Steve Brine commissioned Public Health England “to undertake a review of the evidence on prescribed medicines that may cause dependence and withdrawal symptoms, how they may be prevented and the best way to help patients who report these.”

BBC Radio 4’s ‘File on 4’ programme (Tuesday 30 January at 8pm) will feature the investigation as part of a wider look at the rise in drug-related deaths, especially those involving prescription medicines such as benzodiazepines and Fentanyl. Benzodiazepines are thought to have contributed to almost half of drug deaths in Scotland, claims the show.

While many of the tablets described as “street valium” or “blues”, are made in illicit laboratories operated by organised crime gangs, the programme says that “organised crime gangs have also become involved in diverting significant numbers of highly addictive medicines from the legitimate supply chain onto the black market.

“Regulators say there is an extensive network of criminality involving businesses such as wholesale dealers and registered pharmacies. Some in the pharmaceutical industry such as drug manufacturers are repeating calls for supply chain regulation to be reviewed to ensure medicines reach their intended target.”

Information published ahead of the broadcast said that gangs “tricked or bribed pharmacists and drug wholesalers to access almost 160 million tablets with a street value of up to £200m over a three-year period.” While fake documents have been used in some cases to convince the legitimate supply market that the criminals were genuine brokers, “in others, pharmacists were approached directly and offered payment to order and supply the drugs,” claims the show.

Drugs particularly targeted were diazepam, nitrazepam, temazepam, zolpidem and zoplicone. Drugs were being sold via websites and the broadcast says that three websites operated by gangs had made £55 million in a little over a year.

The MHRA says that anyone wishing to report criminal activity relating to the diversion of these medicines can email information to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or provide information anonymously through Crimestoppers.

Links:
MHRA statement         
BBC Radio 4 ‘File on 4’ ‘A Deadly Prescription’  
BBC News online coverage
Crimestoppers reporting          

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