Fears as tranquilliser addiction rises
A shortage of heroin has sent users to the equally dangerous drug known as 'mother's little helper'
The Observer Sunday November 30 2008
Tablets of diazepam, better known as the tranquilliser Valium, selling illegally at £1 for 10mg among class A drug users.
They used to be called 'mother's little helpers', pill prescribed to stressed suburban housewives as a miracle pick-me-up. Now benzodiazepines are proving popular again, this time as an alternative to heroin.
The tranquilliser boomed in the Sixties and Seventies as a supposedly safe alternative to barbiturates. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones immortalised it in 'Mother's Little Helper', their 1966 song about a housewife addicted to prescribed drugs because of the pressures of domestic life. Prescriptions peaked at 30 million in 1979, but evidence grew that 'benzos' could lead to addiction and horrific withdrawal symptoms, prompting a backlash.
However, their use is on the rise again because heroin is in short supply in some parts of the country or its purity is compromised, according to drugs campaigners. They say that benzos such as diazepam can be far more addictive than heroin and potentially lethal if withdrawn abruptly or mixed with alcohol and methadone. But there is a dire lack of provision for addicts seeking help.
The warning came days after it was revealed that shadow Chancellor George Osborne's brother, Adam, had been suspended as a junior psychiatrist over allegations that he inappropriately prescribed tranquillisers to his friends. If an investigation by the General Medical Council finds against him, he could be barred from practice.
A recent survey of 100 drug and alcohol services and police forces by the organisation Drugscope found a rise in the use of diazepam - which was first marketed as Valium - by heroin and cocaine users in 15 out of 20 locations around the country. It can be bought for £1 per 10mg tablet and is relatively easy to find online. Dealers are unperturbed by sentences of up to 14 years in prison for handling the pills.
Twenty years ago, the Committee on the Safety of Medicine recommended that benzodiazepines should not be used for more than four weeks at a time, but repeat prescriptions continued. There are an estimated 1.2 million involuntary legal addicts in Britain as well as thousands of illicit users of the class C drug, which was developed by Hoffman-La Roche in the Sixties.
Known as 'blues' or 'vallies,' diazepam is often used as a substitute for heroin or to ease the comedown from crack cocaine. A massive increase in illegal imports, both genuine and counterfeit, possibly from Spain, Portugal and France, may be behind the trend. Police and customs seizures have risen from 300,000 pills between July 2003 and June 2006 to two million between July 2006 and June 2008.
Barry Haslam, 65, who runs a support group for benzodiazepine addicts in Oldham, once had a 300mg-a-day habit after being prescribed medication following a nervous breakdown. He claims the drug crippled him and stole 10 years of his life as doctors gradually increased his dosage. 'These drugs are brutal and should be reclassified in the light of research,' he said. 'I am extremely mild-mannered but they made me very aggressive and the withdrawals were agonising. I would go out looking for fights; I would punch walls and spent many months of withdrawal in horrific pain. I have seen grown men cry coming off these.'
Abruptly stopping benzodiazepines can also cause fatal seizures. Other withdrawal symptoms include acute anxiety, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, insomnia, irritability, headaches, muscle and bone pain and depression. Haslam said: 'The violence these things can cause is off the chart: people become feral.'
One survey found that every GP surgery in Newcastle upon Tyne had at least 180 long-term users while, nationwide, tranquillisers remain the most commonly prescribed mood altering drug for many conditions from anxiety to back pain and even PMT. Haslam condemned the legal prescription of the drugs by doctors. 'In my opinion, many of the tranquilliser drug manufacturers make the Colombian drug barons look like rank amateurs and the doctors have become the legal drug pushers,' he said.
The government is facing calls to take action. Labour minister Phil Woolas said: 'The story of benzodiazepines has been described as a national scandal. The impact is too big for governments, regulatory authorities and the pharmaceutical industry to address head on, so the scandal has been swept under the carpet. Benzos are responsible for more pain, unhappiness and damage than anything else in our society.'