Prescription drug abuse set to exceed use of illicit narcotics globally

Abuse of prescription drugs is about to exceed the use of illicit street narcotics worldwide — and the shift has spawned trade in counterfeit painkillers and other medicines potent enough to kill, a watchdog warns.

Already outstripped traditional illegal drugs in parts of Europe, Africa and South Asia: report

Abuse of prescription drugs is about to exceed the use of illicit street narcotics worldwide —and the shift has spawned a lethal new trade incounterfeit painkillers, sedatives and other medicines potent enough to kill, a global watchdog warned Wednesday.

Already, prescription drug abuse has outstripped traditional illegal drugs such as heroin, cocaine andEcstasy in parts of Europe, Africa and South Asia,the UN-affiliated International Narcotics Control Board said in its annual report for 2006.

In the United States alone, the abuse ofpainkillers, stimulants, tranquilizers and otherprescription medications has gone beyond "practically all illicit drugs with the exception of cannabis,"with users increasingly turning to them first, theVienna-based group said.

And unregulated markets in many countries make it easy for traffickers to peddle a wide variety ofcounterfeit drugs through courier services, ordinary mail and the internet.

"Gains over the past years in international drugcontrol may be seriously undermined by this ominousdevelopment if it remains unchecked," INCB presidentPhilip Emafo said.

Discount medications that seem to be authenticoften turn out to be cheap but powerful knockoffs concocted from recipes posted on the web, Emafo added.

"Instead of healing, they can take lives," he said, characterizing the danger as "real and sizable."

Up to 50 per cent of all drugs taken in developing countries are believed to be counterfeit, the boardsaid, citing estimates from the World HealthOrganization.

Buprenorphine, an analgesic, is now the maininjection drug in most of India, and it is also trafficked and abused in tablet form in France, where the INCB estimates 20 to 25 per cent of the drug sold commercially as Subutex is being diverted to the black market.

Canadians ditching heroin for prescription narcotics

A study published in November 2006in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that heroin was no longer the opiate of choice among many substance abusers in Canada — prescription narcotics such asmorphine and OxyContin were taking its place.

Researchers studied street users in seven cities across the country in 2005, and found that heroin remained the No. 1 illicit opiate only in Vancouver and Montreal. In the five other cities — Edmonton,Toronto, Quebec City, Fredericton and Saint John — more often than not, getting high meant taking prescription opioids like Percodan.

When the study was released, lead author BenediktFischer, an addiction researcher at the University of Victoria, said the switch to highly addictiveprescription narcotics among street users likely represents just the tip of the iceberg

Hesaid he suspected the numbers would be much higher ifthe general population was factored in.

The INCB said the number of Americans abusing prescription drugs nearly doubled from 7.8 million in 1992 to 15.1 million in 2003. Among theirprescription drugs of choice: the painkillers oxycodone, sold under the trade name OxyContin, and hydrocodone, sold as Vicodin and used by 7.4 per centof college students in 2005.

Although the number of U.S. high school and college students abusing illicit drugs declined in 2006 for a fourth consecutive year, "the high andincreasing level of abuse of prescription drugs by both adolescents and adults is a serious cause for concern," it said.

Counterfeiters are exploiting intense demand forprescription drugs that can give a "high" comparableto cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine, the watchdog group said.