An investigation conducted by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has revealed that organised criminal gangs are bribing pharmacists and wholesalers to supply them with prescription drugs illegally.
In a statement, the agency said it made 40 arrests linked to the diversion of legitimate pharmaceutical products last year, including five pharmacists, who have been suspended from practice.
The MHRA estimates that prescription medication worth as much as £200 million ($284.6 million) was diverted from official supply chains to illicit markets between 2013 and 2016, placing many thousands of vulnerable people at risk.
Prescription-only drugs including benzodiazepines, anxiolytics such as Diazepam and Zopiclone and the painkiller Tramadol were the focus of the MHRA probe, which established that drugs diverted from legitimate supply chains are fuelling the illicit online pharmacy market.
The MHRA said there was no indication that the illegal trade in prescription pharmaceuticals is having any impact of the supply of medicines to members of the British public.
Commenting on the findings of the investigation, MHRA Head of Enforcement Alastair Jeffrey 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.”
Last month, the UK government launched a wide-ranging review of prescription drug addiction in Britain, after fears were raised the country could be facing similar problems to the US, which is in the grip of opioid public health crisis.
Public Health England (PHE) will examine the scale of the problem, the harms caused by dependence on prescription-only drugs, withdrawal, and how prescription drug abuse can be prevented.
Benzodiazepines and z-drugs, pregabalin and gabapentin, opioid pain medicines and antidepressants will be examined in the PHE review.
Public Health Minister Steve Brine said: “We know this is a huge problem in other countries like the United States—and we must absolutely make sure it doesn’t become one here.
“While we are world-leading in offering free treatment for addiction, we cannot be complacent—that’s why I’ve asked PHE to conduct this review.
“PHE has an excellent track record in robust evidence reviews, and this will help us understand the scale of this issue here and how we can address it.”