WHATS NEW? - March 2015

Ecstasy Purity Triples in One Year

Warning over new 'drug driving' law and prescribed medication

Hard work can drive you to drink, say researchers

NPS ('legal highs') and prescription drugs face ban in English and Welsh prisons

Rising abuse of prescription drugs heralds epidemic, claims survey

Poor sleep 'early warning sign' for drink and drug issues

NPS and 'club drugs' project gets go ahead

Students offered alcohol-free flats at St Andrews University

Silk Road's 'Dread Pirate Roberts' convicted of running online drug marketplace

Cigarette package law to be voted on by MPs before election



Ecstasy Purity Triples in One Year

Ecstasy purity has tripled in some parts of England in the last year, according to a nationwide drugs survey. 

UK charity Drugscope's annual survey revealed that police and drug services around the UK have seen the strength of Class A drugs – including ecstasy – double and even treble in some cities after several years of high adulteration. 

Experts have suggested that two interlinked factors may have contributed to the upsurge in quality: falling wholesale drug prices and competition from cheaper but potent new psychoactive substances. 

Statistics released by the government in September last year found that drug deaths had risen sharply in 2013. The survey points to a number of possible reasons for the rise, including an increase in the misuse of prescription drugs.

The findings follow the deaths of four men who died after taking a dangerous batch of "ecstasy" pills over the Christmas period. The pink pills embossed with the Superman insignia were found to contain PMA, a toxic substitute of MDMA that is fatal in high doses.

Writing in the Guardian late last year, David Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology, said that the emergence of PMA was "one of the many examples of how prohibition of one drug leads to greater harm from an alternative that is developed to overcome the block". 

With the sudden upturn in purity and misselling of PMA as ecstasy, the need for drug-testing schemes to warn clubbers is the all the more pressing.

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Warning over new 'drug driving' law and prescribed medication

People who have been prescribed powerful anxiety or pain relief drugs are being warned about a new drug-driving law. As well as outlawing driving while under the influence of illegal drugs, new legislation will include some prescription medicines.

The new law, to be introduced 2 March 2015 in England and Wales, aims to catch those who are driving with illegal drugs in their system. It sets very low levels for eight well known illegal drugs, including cannabis and cocaine, but also includes eight prescription drugs, where the levels have been set much higher.

Most of them, including Temazepan and Diazepam, are used for treating conditions such as anxiety. The list also includes methadone, a heroin substitute and pain medication, and morphine, a powerful opiate also used for pain relief.

Robert Goodwill MP, Road Safety Minister, says as long as they stay within prescribed levels, most people will still be able to get behind the wheel of a car.
"If you are taking your medicine as directed and your driving is not impaired, then you are not breaking the law and there is no need to worry," he said.

"We advise anyone who is unsure about the effects of their medication or how the new legislation may affect them, to seek the advice of their doctor or pharmacist. There will also be a medical defence if a driver has been taking medication as directed and is found to be over the limit but not impaired.

Prof David Taylor, a spokesman for the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and a member of the Department for Transport advisory panel on drug-driving said "Don't stop taking your medicines, prescribed or otherwise, if you are worried about this new law. Instead, talk to your doctor or pharmacist for information about how your medicines might affect your ability to drive. They'll be happy to give you the advice you need to stay safe.

For more information on the new drug driving law www.gov.uk/drug-driving-law.

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Hard work can drive you to drink, say researchers

An overview of studies covering more than 400,000 people showed that individuals who exceed 48 working hours per week are likelier to consume "risky" quantities of alcohol.

The paper, published in the British Medical Journal, reported that long working hours boosted the likelihood of higher alcohol intake by 11% overall. People who worked 49-54 hours a week ran a 13% higher risk of developing a "risky alcohol use" habit compared to counterparts who worked a 35-40-hour work week. Those working 55 hours or more were 12% more at risk.

"Risky" alcohol use was defined as more than 14 units per week for a woman and more than 21 for a man - levels that have been linked to a higher risk for liver and heart disease, cancer, stroke and mental disorders.
An alcohol unit is the equivalent of a third of a pint of medium-strength beer, half a 175ml (six fluid ounces) glass of red wine with 12% alcohol by volume, or a 25ml shot of whisky.

The findings add statistical backing to anecdotal evidence for a link between excessive work and alcohol abuse, the authors said. More than a dozen developed economies were covered by the research, including Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan and the United States.

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NPS ('legal highs') and prescription drugs face ban in English and Welsh prisons

The justice secretary will be able to ban any legal drug inside prisons, including prescription drugs and "legal highs", under a new crackdown.

Chris Grayling linked the rising use of "legal highs" behind bars to more cases of assault and self-harm in jails in England and Wales. In a speech at the Centre for Social Justice thinktank he said: "We will take a zero-tolerance approach to stamping out their use."

The move came as Home Office minister Lynne Featherstone asked MPs to back the banning of two new psychoactive substances. They are the drug 4,4'-DMAR, known as Serotoni – which has been linked to a number of reported deaths in the UK, mostly in Northern Ireland – and MT-45, a synthetic opioid not currently available in Britain but linked to deaths in Europe and the US.

The Ministry of Justice has sent guidance to prison governors, requiring them to extend their mandatory drug testing to uncontrolled substances.

Those who fail the drug tests can face a range of penalties, including prosecution, up to 42 days added on to their sentence, segregation in their cells for up to 21 days, strictly no contact with visitors – known as "closed visits" – and forfeiting their weekly prison earnings for up to 12 weeks.

The power to order an extension of mandatory drug testing is contained in the criminal justice and courts bill, which is shortly to reach the statute book. This allows the justice secretary to specify "any substance or product" in the prison rules which is not already banned the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.

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Rising abuse of prescription drugs heralds epidemic, claims survey

The first signs of a US-style epidemic in the abuse of prescription drugs in Britain have emerged with an upsurge in the misuse of two anticonvulsant drugs being reported around the country.

The 2014 annual DrugScope survey shows drug workers reporting a significant upsurge in the use of the prescription drugs, pregabalin and gabapentin, especially amongst heroin addicts and within prisons.

The survey says that the two drugs, which are used to treat epilepsy, neuropathic pain and anxiety, when combined with depressants can cause drowsiness, sedation, respiratory failure and even death. It adds that official statistics show that the two drugs were mentioned on 41 death certificates in 2013.

"We have seen a big rise in the illicit use of pregabalin and gabapentin," said one drug worker in York quoted by the survey. "The effects are horrendous and life threatening. People become so heavily intoxicated because they are mixing several drugs at a time.

"The drugs can reduce the heart rate and if taken with methadone can be extremely dangerous, so we now have to consider whether people are using these drugs when we prescribe methadone," he added.

The report says that growing concern has led to GPs and other prescribers being asked to take more care to ensure they do not appear on the illicit market. Public Health England and NHS England warned last month about the rise in prescribing of the two drugs.

They pointed out that there were 8.2m prescriptions issued for them in 2013, representing a 46% rise for gabapentin over two years, and a 53% rise for pregabalin over the same period.

One recent study showed there are now more than 1,800 inmates in prisons in England and Wales being prescribed gabapentin or pregabalin which represents nearly 3% of the prison population and is twice the rate of prescribing in the wider community.

One side-effect of the misuse of the two prescription drugs has been more chaotic, uninhibited behaviour amongst some heroin addicts, such as injecting in public.

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Poor sleep 'early warning sign' for drink and drug issues

Poor sleep in teenage years could be an early warning sign for alcohol problems, illicit drug use and "regretful" sexual behaviour, research suggests.

US scientists found adolescents with bad sleep habits were more likely to engage in risky behaviour in the years to come than those who slept soundly. They say parents should pay closer attention to teens' sleep schedules. Other research suggests a good night's sleep is key to making good judgements.

Writing in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, scientists' analysed data from more than 6,500 adolescents in the United States.

They tracked sleep patterns, alcohol and drug use through a large nationwide survey conducted in three waves between 1994 and 2002. People who slept badly when first questioned were most likely to have alcohol and drug problems at that time.

But researchers also wanted to tease out whether poor or insufficient sleep were independently linked to the development of such problems in later life.

Teenagers who reported trouble going to sleep at least once a week were more likely to binge drink, engage in sexual behaviour that they later regretted when drunk or take illicit drugs in the years to come.

And the worse the sleep problem, the stronger the link seemed to be. Those who found it difficult falling sleep almost every day were 33% more likely to experience these issues than teenagers who found it easy to drift-off. Researchers found the fewer the hours of sleep adolescents reported on average, the greater the odds they would subsequently experience a host of problems, including relationship issues triggered by alcohol misuse. But an extra hour of sleep seemed to offer some protection - each additional hour was linked to a decrease in the odds of binge drinking.

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NPS and 'club drugs' project gets go ahead

Second phase of NEPTUNE project will improve delivery of evidence-based treatment for New Psychoactive Substances and 'club drugs' by providing new resources for clinicians.

Details of a new £400k project to improve interventions for the harmful effects of the new drugs were announced recently. It is the first time that comprehensive guidance and tools will be delivered to small-scale clinical settings on a national scale to help provide more effective care for patients presenting harmful symptoms of NPS use.

The NEPTUNE II project, funded by the Health Foundation and run by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, builds on existing research into NPS substances, and aims to bring a better understanding of how the harmful effects of club drugs should be managed in clinical settings.

It has been commissioned as growing evidence shows that clinicians lack confidence in identifying and offering care for patients who suffer as a result of using NPS. In a recent survey, only 30% of London-based staff reported a 'high level of confidence' in identification and clinical management of club drugs, compared to 80% who reported this level of confidence when working with people with heroin, crack or alcohol problems.

Dr Owen Bowden-Jones, NEPTUNE Chair and clinical lead at the CNWL, comments: "With a new drug appearing every week in the EU and around one million people using at least one of these last year in the UK alone, it is critical that we help clinicians to better recognise, understand and manage the effects of Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS).

"Because new substances are emerging so quickly, it is very difficult to expect clinicians to identify and manage harmful symptoms of NPS use. However, without this knowledge, we're faced with a risk that many patients will be given inappropriate or ineffective treatment. We hope that by giving more robust and evidence-based guidance to clinicians, we will make a real difference for patients by building the confidence of clinicians in dealing with problems posed by NPS use."

An expert working group, including patients, will support the development of the new resources, providing expertise to inform existing research and ensure all new materials are evidence-based in their approach.

For further information click here.

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Students offered alcohol-free flats at St Andrews University

Students who want to live in alcohol-free accommodation are being given the chance at St Andrews University. It has been introduced to cater for students with religious beliefs or medical conditions that do not allow drinking. The move from the Fife institution is thought to be the first time alcohol-free student accommodation has been offered in Scotland.

It will be offered at David Russell Apartments in Fife Park from September. The flats each hold between four to six people. Students will be asked to tick a box on their accommodation forms giving them the option.

Pat Mathewson, St Andrews Students' Association, said: "Our residential services have decided they will offer a small section and then see what the uptake is like.We're always in favour of anything that will make our students more comfortable. By no means are any students going to be forced into student accommodation they haven't asked for."

A St Andrews University spokeswoman said: "The University of St Andrews is committed to creating a safe, healthy, and inclusive campus experience for all of our students.

"We know that not all students drink alcohol. What's more, we believe student learning lasts a lifetime, so reinforcing positive behaviours during this period of development can have a lasting influence."

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Silk Road's 'Dread Pirate Roberts' convicted of running online drug marketplace

The suspected mastermind of the online drug emporium Silk Road is facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison after a jury returned a guilty verdict at the end of a four-week trial that revealed a plethora of detail about US investigations into the use of the bitcoin digital currency for drug trafficking and other crimes.

IRoss Ulbricht, 30, was convicted on all seven charges which he had faced at Manhattan district court, including drug trafficking, criminal enterprise, aiding and abetting the distribution of drugs over the internet, computer hacking and money laundering.

His defence team attempted to convince the jury that, while Ulbricht was one of the site's creators, known as Dread Pirate Roberts, the mysterious mastermind behind the deep-web marketplace was actually Mark Karpelès, the founder of bitcoin exchange Mt Gox.

However, the prosecution was able to produce evidence including Ulbricht's personal journals, as well as his bitcoin wallet containing millions of dollars' worth of the online-only currency, all of which pointed to his guilt.

Ulbricht was arrested in San Francisco in October 2013 in the wake of US investigations into the use of bitcoin for drug trafficking and other illegal activities and charged with being Dread Pirate Roberts, a name taken from the film The Princess Bride where it referred to a mythical persona shared between several people.

Visitors to Silk Road could procure anything from LSD to ecstasy pills and even read reviews and star ratings left by previous customers of dealers, rather as one might do on sites such as eBay or Amazon.

By spring 2013, 10,000 products were for sale, 70% of which were drugs, in addition to more than a hundred listings for "services," much of which related to hacking into social network accounts, and more than 800 listings for pirated digital goods.

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Cigarette package law to be voted on by MPs before election

A law introducing plain cigarette packaging in England and Wales could come into force in 2016 after ministers said MPs would be asked to vote on the plan before May's general election.

It follows a series of public consultations on the issue. Public Health Minister Jane Ellison told MPs the move was likely to have a positive impact on public health, particularly for children.

The changes could come into force as soon as 2016 if Parliament passes legislation before the end of March. Labour has already pledged to ban images on packets if it wins power.

Ms Ellison said all the evidence pointed to the step having a positive impact - although she warned of a potential legal challenge from the cigarette industry which strongly opposes the move.

A review of the public health implications of standardised packaging last year by Sir Cyril Chantler concluded it was very likely their introduction would lead to a modest but important reduction in the uptake and prevalence of smoking.

MPs are now expected to be given a free vote on the issue before Parliament is dissolved ahead of the general election campaign, which begins in April.

"As might be expected, data on this sort of activity is not exactly forthcoming, so we used a number of previous studies which looked at different elements of the equation, from the number of prostitutes in the UK to price at which drugs are bought."

The ONS estimated that including spending on drugs such as cocaine and heroin in the national accounts would add £6.7 billion a year to spending across the UK. The figure was an estimated based on data covering the period between 1997 and 2013 from various sources, including the Home Office and a study undertaken by the United Nations.

Spending on prostitution was believed to be £4.3 billion a year during this period, with data derived from a 2004 government study and "extrapolated". The overall estimate for drugs and prostitution for 2013, taking into account inflation, was £12.3 billion.

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