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Mother's Little Killers

Channel 4 News, January 4, 2001

Jon Snow:

They used to be called "Mother's Little Helpers" but these prescription drugs are now killing more people every year than heroin. The Government is to clamp down on a group of prescription drugs which the latest figures show are killing more people than heroin. Benzodiazepines are tranquillisers such as Valium but they are being abused more and more and with fatal consequences. Fresh legislation is planned to tighten the controls on their availability but critics say it's not enough to tackle a fast-growing problem. Our Social Affairs Correspondent, Victoria MacDonald, has this exclusive report:

Gary Walsh (Drug Addict):

I was working in the West End for BUPA. It was my job. I had depression and my marriage split up and I got them through a private doctor – through work. I realised how nice they were and just shut things off.

Victoria Macdonald:

Gary has been addicted to benzodiazepine tranquillisers for more than thirteen years. Initially he was legally prescribed them. Now he buys them off the streets with ease.

Gary Walsh (Drug Addict):

If you stopped you'd have fits, cramps, sickness, diarrhoea and you know that taking one is going to make you better. So you are going to take that one to make you better.

Victoria Macdonald:

Benzodiazepines were once called "Mother's Little Helpers" numbing the pain of suburban neurosis but they are widely abused and Home Offices figures show that they are also killing people.

They are being prescribed and then sold on to the streets or imported in increasingly large quantities from abroad making their way into the hands of drug dealers. Now Channel 4 News has learned that the Government is to change the Misuse of Drugs Act. It's to reschedule benzodiazepines making them subject to import and export controls. But critics say that this does not deal with the legally prescribed drugs being illicitly sold.

Gary Walsh (Drug Addict):

I buy drugs from the street. I bought these just down the road near the Chemist's this morning. The blue ones (10mg Valium/diazepam) are two for a pound. The yellow ones (5mg Valium/diazepam) are four for a pound.

Victoria Macdonald:

Close to this alley in London's East End is a Chemist's shop where the drug dealers go for the prescriptions for the benzodiazepines legally filled. And you can see all the evidence of the drugs here: the phials, the syringes and the bottles presumably containing Valium or temazepam.

And increasingly these illegally acquired drugs which are taken in tablet form or crushed and injected are leading to fatal overdoses.

The statistics paint a bleak picture. In Scotland in 1998, the most recent figures available, 114 people died from heroin and morphine overdoses but 151 died from taking benzodiazepines.

In England and Wales between 1990 and 1996 1,623 people overdosed on heroin, morphine and other opiates while 1,810 died from benzodiazepines.

Drugs Tsar Keith Hallawell:

Within a well-organised and well-regulated system you will have people who will misuse those systems, people who are buying them legitimately or having them prescribed legitimately, selling them on to someone else. You will have doctors who are over-prescribing perhaps unaware of the consequences and not concerned about that. So even within a well-regulated system you could still have some seepage. But what we can do and what we are trying to do is to increase knowledge, increase understanding, better regulate, better advise and better control.

Victoria Macdonald:

Psychiatrist Bob Johnson who has spent years working with benzo addicts believes the Government's moves do not go far enough.

Dr Bob Johnson:

Tinkering with the legislation is not sufficient. Government has a role and a serious role. Talking about Drugs Tsars, Wars on Drugs misses the point. You are dealing with people who are damaged, people who have deep mental pain and therefore you have to find the best practice, persuasion and encouragement.

Victoria Macdonald:

At this Drop-in Centre run by the charity Turning Point workers believe it is doctors who are the key.

Adam Frankland (Turning Point):

Doctors need more training and education about drugs in general, both prescribed and street drugs as well so that they know what they are dealing with when people come through the doors to them. During doctor training very little time is spent on illicit drugs or drugs that are used on the street.

Victoria Macdonald:

Gary wants to stop taking the benzos and he wants people to recognise the dangers of these prescription drugs.

Gary Walsh (Drug Addict):

They are dangerous drugs. People don't realise how bad they are. They think it's just a bit of fun but it's no fun. Once you are on them it's no fun at all. They really mess you up.

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