Tens of thousands of potentially life-threatening illegally imported prescription drugs have been recovered in Northern Ireland as part of an international crackdown on organised internet crime, the health minister has revealed.
Fifty-five thousand benzodiazepine sedatives plus erectile dysfunction and pain relief medications were among those recovered as part of Operation Pangea V, which involves 100 countries and disrupts the networks behind the illegal online sale of cut price unauthorised medicines.
In Northern Ireland BZP (benzodiazepines) were the second most commonly reported drug of misuse, by a quarter of those seeking treatment last year, statistics from the drug misuse database revealed.
Minister Edwin Poots said: “This campaign shows the stark reality of buying medicines online.
“The message is clear, it could cost you your life.”
Operation Pangea V ran from September 25 to October 2 and involved 100 countries and 193 agencies.
A total of 79 arrests were made globally and approximately £6.5 million worth of medicines uncovered.
Some 18,041 websites engaged in illegal activity were shut down and 6,740 packages seized by regulators and customs authorities.
The minister launched a publicity campaign to increase public awareness of the dangers of internet medicines.
“The risk to the public due to illegal or counterfeit medicines cannot be understated,” he said.
Professor Mike Mawhinney, head of the medicines regulatory group in the Health Department, said people should take prescription medications only in consultation with their GP, pharmacist or other healthcare professionals.
“Medicines obtained through unregulated internet sites may not have been prescribed by a healthcare practitioner, may not have been subject to the normal controls on manufacture and may not be of a suitable quality or be of the nature described,” he said.
Peter Moore, a senior medicines enforcement officer, said it was not worth the health risk.
“Illegal suppliers have no quality control or standards,” he said.
“If people could see the reality of the filthy conditions in which these medicines are being made and stored in they certainly would not go near them.”
Benzodiazepines include diazepam and temazepam, and are commonly prescribed by GPs for a range of conditions such as anxiety and insomnia.
Today’s statistical bulletin said almost 3,000 people presented for treatment for problem drug misuse in 2011/12.
Three-quarters were men and just under a quarter were aged 21 or under.
Cannabis was the most commonly reported main drug of misuse, reported by 41% of people.
Other opiates and cocaine were also responsible for a significant proportion of cases.