March 31, 2006
THE good news is that heroin abuse is down. The bad news: It appears that Subutex and Dormicum abuse is on the rise.
Subutex is a prescription drug some doctors use to help heroin addicts control the habit.
It was introduced here in 2002. A year later, the number of heroin abusers caught here plunged dramatically - to 567 from 2,235 in 2002.
And it has been falling since.
The Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) figures show that only 62 heroin abusers were caught last year, down from 111 in 2004.
But it appears that more are abusing Subutex now. The problem is bad enough for the Ministry of Health (MOH) to propose to the CNB to make Subutex a controlled drug.
The CNB said in an e-mail to The New Paper that if the situation worsens, it may have to do that.
Pastor Don Wong, the executive director of HighPoint halfway house, said of the Subutex problem: 'Ten out of 10 people who now come to us for interviews are Subutex addicts. And almost all addicts who are referred to us by the IMH (Institute of Mental Health) now are Subutex addicts.'
Pastor Wong, 46, believes Subutex, is fast becoming the substitute for heroin. He added: 'The Government introduced it with good intention. But it's now being widely abused. 'Now, addicts can abuse it without facing the consequences of going to jail.'
NOT A CONTROLLED DRUG
This is because Subutex is not listed as a controlled drug. Controlled drugs come under the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) and CNB's jurisdiction. This means CNB officers can arrest and charge an abuser in court.
Currently, under the Poisons Act administered by the Health Sciences Authority (HSA), only HSA can prosecute illegal drug sellers.
They can be fined up to $10,000 or jailed up to two years, or both. But there is no punishment for abusers.
If Subutex or Dormicum is made a controlled drug, it may check abuse as those caught carrying or using the drug without a prescription will be breaking the law.
General practitioner Malcolm Mah said it may also stop abusers from buying the drug illegally. 'They may now get it from the doctors instead of the black market.'
An MOH spokesman said: '(It) will tighten the control of Subutex by serving as a deterrent to illicit suppliers in the black market.'
Last November, MOH issued clinical guidelines for the prescription and use of Subutex. Doctors who wish to prescribe the drug must undergo an eight-hour training course conducted by IMH.
They are also required to record their prescriptions, patients' particulars and the number of pills dispensed in a central online registry run by MOH. So far, 3,044 Subutex users are registered.
This is not the first time prescription drugs have been abused by addicts.
In the 1980s, Erimin-5, a sleeping pill, and Upjohn 27, a tranquiliser, were the targets. Erimin-5 and Ketamine, an anaesthetic, were reclassified under the MDA after they were found to be abused.
Now, the screws are slowly being turned on Subutex abusers. SPOT CHECKS Last December, the MOH and CNB conducted spot checks on 15 clinics dispensing the drug.
The CNB spokesman said more time is needed for the measures to kick in.
That was what Senior Minister of State (Law and Home Affairs) Ho Peng Kee said when the Subutex problem was raised in Parliament early this month.
The CNB spokesman said: 'The CNB remains vigilant and we will not hesitate to make Subutex a controlled drug if the need arises.'
Early indications are promising, the MOH noted. The number of Subutex pills seized fell from a high of more than 500 tablets last July to 180 tablets in December.
Public complaints to the CNB on Subutex abuse also dropped from a high of 31 last November to 19 a month later.