A leading doctor is backing the call for prescription painkiller tramadol to be upgraded to a Class A drug over the dangers it can pose and the threats being made to GPs by addicts.
Earlier this month, UTV revealed that tramadol is claiming more lives in Northern Ireland than any other drug – including heroin and cocaine.
Pathologist Professor Jack Crane called for the reclassification of the drug to crack down on the black market trade.
Now Tom Black, a senior doctor with more than 20 years’ experience and chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee, has told UTV he shares Professor Crane’s concerns.
"We’re getting multiple patients coming in addicted to multiple drugs, abusing anything they can get their hands on," he said.
"Tramadol has become one of those drugs of abuse and we’re getting a lot of patients trying to get more and more."
Dr Black explained that GPs are coming under pressure from patients who are either addicted to prescription drugs themselves, or who are being forced to get prescriptions for dealers.
And he says they end up harassing doctors every day.
“You can see the same names popping up looking for appointments to come in and they won’t leave the room without them (prescriptions),” Dr Black said.
“Some of them threaten you, some of them threaten violence, and obviously that’s not acceptable and we won’t put up with that.”
While he added that the police had only had to be called once to his practice, he said the pressure doctors can face is considerable.
“They literally won’t leave the room and they face you down,” he said, of patients battling addiction.
“And this harassment is day and daily.”
While it is important to note that thousands of people are legally prescribed tramadol every day and take it safely under medical guidance, there are risks of addiction with any opiate-based painkiller.
The dangers surrounding tramadol also become much more serious if it is mixed with alcohol or other drugs, including anti-depressants.
Last year, 33 deaths in Northern Ireland were linked to tramadol.
That represents 15% of all tramadol-related deaths in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, despite only making up a small percentage of the population.
Anyone taking tramadol without a prescription also faces criminal charges as it was made a Class C drug back in 2014.
Illegal possession could result in a formal caution or an arrest and conviction, resulting in up to two years in jail and/or an unlimited fine.
Supplying tramadol, even by giving it away free to friends, could result in up to 14 years behind bars.
Care also needs to be taken around tramadol use and driving, as anyone found behind the wheel while unfit through drug use – even of prescription medication – could be fined, disqualified, or jailed.
According to PSNI figures, there were 20 incidents involving tramadol recorded in the last six months alone.
Issues around abuse of prescription drugs are neither new nor exclusive to tramadol, with temazepam and diazepam previously among those proving to be in demand.
However, Dr Black stressed that tramadol does appear to be the one causing the most harm and therefore action needs to be taken.
UTV Correspondent Sharon O'Neill has been looking into the issue of tramadol abuse and has been speaking to one addict who gets it on prescription - and buys it illegally online for as little as 30p per pill
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