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The demise of the Head Shop following enactment of the Psychoactive Substances Bill in Ireland has led to an explosion in the abuse of benzodiazepines like Valium, Xanax and Rohypnol among young people, with some teens running up a debt of €1,000 for “sweets” and “smarties”, according to a story in today’s Irish Examiner.

My own research, entitled Minor Tranquillisers and Sedatives: Use and Misuse in the West of Ireland highlighted an epidemic of benzodiazepine abuse in the population and endemic poor prescribing by GPs when it was published in 2009. While some GPs felt it was finger-pointing, others felt it was a timely inquiry into a serious problem.

A defining feature of this issue has been the foot-dragging of the public health authorities. Dr Colin Bradley, Professor of General Practice at UCC, echoes that concern in today’s newspaper: “In 2002, a report by a governmental group, the Benzodiazepine Committee, identified the problem and drew up guidelines but since then nothing has happened. The disturbing thing is that there is no great evidence that we are starting to stop prescribing these drugs. The problem is getting worse not better.”

Leakage to the street has always been a feature of the misuse of benzodiazepines, not least from prescriptions legitimately written and dispensed.

I warned on the day the report was published that the recession could lead to an increase in the numbers taking these drugs on a long-term basis and if this happened, that it could reinforce what were, at that time, deeply embedded patterns of benzodiazepine abuse by patients and inappropriate prescribing by GPs.

The Minister of State for Primary Care, Roisin Shortall TD, says she has asked the HSE for updated information. What have the public health authorities been doing since then to combat benzodiazepine abuse?