A worrying rise in the number of drug-related hospitalisations and deaths has been linked to an increase in online sales of illicit prescription drugs.  

It’s believed a combination of deteriorating mental health due to the pressures of the pandemic and lockdown, and reduced access to GPs and health services is a factor in a number of people deciding to self-medicate with unknown substances dressed as benzodiazepines.

But experts are urging people to exercise great caution, warning these drugs are often fake and contain very harmful substances in unknown dosages. The government’s Frank website says that the pills often come in blister packs which can make them look legitimate and safe when they are not.

They are usually sold as diazepam or alprazolam, drugs usually prescribed to treat anxiety and panic attacks, but more often than not they do not contain any of the drug they are sold as. Instead, they can contain other dangerous substances, often not fit for human consumption. The dosages are high, and they are dangerously potent, increasing the chance of overdose, serious side effects and death.

Public Health England issued a warning in late July, alerting drug treatment services and healthcare providers about the availability and harm of illicit drugs being sold as benzodiazepines.

It said there had been 12 cases in the previous four months where drugs had been toxicologically confirmed in pills linked to either hospitalisation or death, and a further 30 cases were being investigated.

In April, as the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded in the UK, drug experts warned that people who use drugs were increasingly turning to benzodiazepines as an alternative to other drugs that were otherwise short in supply.

They warned that two different groups of people appear to be increasingly using illicit benzos: dependent opioid users, and teenagers and young adults.

It coincided with a move in April, by the Home Secretary, to make emergency reforms to the way pharmacists could dispense medications to patients in a bid to protect the NHS from the mounting pressures of COVID-19.

At the time the Home Secretary acknowledged the risks in making such changes, relating to greater access to controlled dugs and risk of diversion or misuse, but that the measures were necessary to relieve the mounting pressures of the coronavirus on health services.

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