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DOCTOR BACKS BENZO RULES
Regulations to help control illegal trade in tranquillizers
From an article written and printed in 1999
by Wendy McLellan, Health Reporter
for The Vancouver Province Newspaper
Dr. Doug Coleman will support anything that empties his clinic's waiting room.
Every day, the New Westminster specialist in addiction medicine sees patients suffering the difficult effects or withdrawal from prescription tranquillizers. Any measure that diminishes their pain would make him happy.
"These (pills) relax people and put them to sleep, but they also cause physical dependence," Coleman said.
"It's not as dramatic a story as heroin or cocaine, but if you totalled all the damage, benzos would be comparable."
Tranquillizers, the group of drugs formally called benzodiazepines, are too easily prescribed by well-meaning physicians who don't know enough about the drugs' addictive qualities, Coleman says.
The pills – benzos in common language – are also readily available on the street to calm a cocaine high or take the edge off a difficult existence.
Coleman treats the street users who want out of the cycle of ups and downs, as well as the unintentional addicts who didn't anticipate the strong grip of a benzo addiction.
He doesn't hold out much hope that Health Canada's new regulations, due this fall, will reduce the over prescription of benzos, but the changes will mean tighter controls on the illegal trade in the drugs.
The new regulations will be added to the Federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. They will enforce tighter controls on the import and export of benzos and require better tracking of the drugs from wholesale suppliers to pharmacies.
"There will be no impact on people who take drugs – you still need a prescription from a doctor and they will still only be sold in pharmacies," said Carole Bouchard, of Health Canada's Bureau of Drug Surveillance.
Ottawa is also considering a recommendation to change the Criminal Code so that officers can demand that drivers be given a roadside test for drugs such as benzos.
In May, the government's Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights proposed the changes to allow police to take a saliva sample from drivers believed to be impaired. The government has until October 8 to respond.
In British Columbia the recommendation has support from police and the Insurance Corp. of B.C.
"The Criminal Code says it's illegal to drive while impaired with alcohol and drugs. There's a penalty for refusing a test for alcohol, but people aren't penalized for refusing drug testing," said ICBC psychologist Bill Mercer, who researched the causes of crashes with RCMP toxicologist Wayne Jeffery.
Jeffery said the proposed Criminal Code amendment is facing opposition from those who say it will violate civil rights.
Benzodiazepines have been prescribed since the 1960s when doctors gladly replaced highly addictive barbiturates, which made overdosing easy, with drugs such as Valium.
The number of prescriptions filled for benzodiazepines has steadily increased in Canada. In 1997 about 14.4 million prescriptions were dispensed and in 1998 the number jumped by 100,000 prescriptions.
In B.C., pharmacists dispensed about 1.5 million benzo prescriptions during 1997; in 1998 the number increased by 80,000.
"That's the hold-up – meanwhile, people are going around killing other people." Jeffery has spent years researching traffic accidents in Canada, looking for connections between benzos and fatal crashes.
In a study published in 1996, Jeffery and two co-authors looked at 1,158 impaired driving cases. Examining the blood test results, they found evidence of alcohol and drugs in about half of the cases.
Of those with both alcohol and drugs, benzodiazepines were the most common drug, closely followed by THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
In research in 1990, Jeffery had found that THC was the most common drug, followed by benzodiazepines.
And in 1994, Jeffrey and Mercer published a study of 186 B.C. drivers killed in car accidents. They found that alcohol alone accounted for 37 per cent of deaths; drugs and alcohol for 11 per cent; and drugs alone for nine per cent. In that study, benzos ranked below THC and cocaine.
ICBC has provided training to police across B.C. to teach them how to detect drug impairment. In the last three years, about 1,000 of the province's 5,000 municipal and RCMP officers have taken the course.
Mercer said the next step is to get the courts to accept the testimony of trained "drug recognition experts."
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