The first signs of a US-style epidemic in the abuse of prescription drugs in Britain have emerged with an upsurge in the misuse of two anticonvulsant drugs being reported around the country.
The 2014 annual DrugScope survey shows drug workers reporting a significant upsurge in the use of the prescription drugs, pregabalin and gabapentin, especially amongst heroin addicts and within prisons.
The survey says that the two drugs, which are used to treat epilepsy, neuropathic pain and anxiety, when combined with depressants can cause drowsiness, sedation, respiratory failure and even death. It adds that official statistics show that the two drugs were mentioned on 41 death certificates in 2013. “We have seen a big rise in the illicit use of pregabalin and gabapentin,” said one drug worker in York quoted by the survey. “The effects are horrendous and life threatening. People become so heavily intoxicated because they are mixing several drugs at a time.
“The drugs can reduce the heart rate and if taken with methadone can be extremely dangerous, so we now have to consider whether people are using these drugs when we prescribe methadone,” he added.
The report says that growing concern has led to GPs and other prescribers being asked to take more care to ensure they do not appear on the illicit market. Public Health England and NHS England warned last month about the rise in prescribing of the two drugs. They pointed out that there were 8.2m prescriptions issued for them in 2013, representing a 46% rise for gabapentin over two years, and a 53% rise for pregabalin over the same period. One recent study showed there are now more than 1,800 inmates in prisons in England and Wales being prescribed gabapentin or pregabalin which represents nearly 3% of the prison population and is twice the rate of prescribing in the wider community.
One side-effect of the misuse of the two prescription drugs has been more chaotic, uninhibited behaviour amongst some heroin addicts, such as injecting in public. The annual DrugScope survey, based on interviews with police, drug action teams and frontline drug workers in 17 towns and cities across the UK, also documents a significant increase in most areas in the street-level purity of cocaine, ecstasy and heroin.
In some places such as Bristol and Liverpool police report that cocaine and heroin purity levels have doubled or even tripled in the past year. Max Daly, the author of the DrugScope survey report, said: “Experts suggest the hike in quality is down to two interlinking factors: falling wholesale drug prices that have enabled Class A suppliers to improve their product in the face of competition from cheap yet potent new psychoactive substances.” He adds that in Glasgow, Nottingham, Cardiff and Bristol the existing two-tier market in cocaine has expanded into a three-tier market, with high purity cocaine being offered for between £100 and £200 a gram.
The annual survey confirms the continuing rapid rise in the misuse of legal highs or new psychoactive substances as they are officially called. The biggest concerns are reported to be the growing use of synthetic cannabis style substances such as Black Mamba and Exodus Damnation, by heroin users, street homeless, socially excluded teenagers and by prisoners.
“One drug worker said that inmates at a Liverpool prison had become so used to emergency services being called after taking Black Mamba that ambulances are now known as ‘the Mambalance’,” it reports.
The Guardian/Jan. 14, 2015