When border force last year, officers noticed that a shipment of more than a ton of lime and mango chutney imported from India was somewhat unusually destined for a residential address in the Midlands, their suspicions were immediately aroused.
On closer inspection, the blue plastic condiment barrels were found to contain some 390,000 packets of counterfeit plastic-wrapped pregabalin, an anti-epileptic drug that is fast becoming one of Britain’s most problematic drugs. Illegal drugs and is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Britons every year.
While the contraband concealed in the pickles was intercepted before reaching its destination, it is feared that dozens of packs of pregabalin regularly find their way onto the streets of Britain, where they are being sold for up to £2 a pill to maintain the desired “euphoric” high. by heroin users and the numbing effects sought by those addicted to painkillers.
It’s part of the global drug demand epidemic. The world customs organizationa global body for customs enforcement agencies, recently revealed last year that it saw a 400% increase in global seizures of pregabalin and other ‘nervous system agents’, from 22 million to 121 million packages between 2020 and 2021.
A survey of I established that consignments of the drug, known as ‘pregga’ or ‘pregabs’, are arriving in Britain from places like Serbia, China and India. The majority of counterfeit drugs are manufactured in clandestine laboratories with a lower percentage of active ingredient than that found in genuine pharmaceutical grade drugs.
Addiction experts have said I that the result is users “gorging” on 20 or more pills at a time along with a cocktail of other substances. The result was an increase in the number of deaths caused by the cumulative effects of drugs and other substances on the body, leading to breathing difficulties and ultimately respiratory failure.
According to data on drug abuse deaths in England and Wales compiled by the Office for National Statistics, pregabalin was considered a relatively minor problem until 2012, when it was discovered that it had contributed to four deaths. In 2018, that figure rose to 187 and last year to 409, which is a 19% increase from the 2020 figure and now accounts for almost 10% of all drug-related deaths.
As one drug awareness officer put it, “Pregabalin basically came out of nowhere to become a big part of the street drug scene. It’s a silent killer – people pick it up in handfuls with other gear and they don’t wake up.
The “silent killer” is part of a larger and sobering picture of record drug abuse-related deaths. Last year there was 4,859 deaths linked to drug poisoning in England and Wales, the highest figure on record and a 6.2% increase from 2020. The death rate is highest among members of the generation X aged 45-49 with longstanding addiction issues. In Scotland, last year’s toll of 1,330 drug-related deaths was the second highest on record.
The transformation of ‘pregga’ from a niche compound for controlling epileptic seizures into a prime suspect in the list of substances at the heart of Britain’s deadly drug problem is a cautionary tale for the unintended overlap between drugs prescription and the misery of addiction.
First approved for medical use in 2004 under the brand name Lyrica, pregabalin was quickly recognized by doctors as having additional benefits in relieving pain and treating anxiety, leading to a rapid expansion of its use as a prescription drug despite the risk of prolonged use leading to addiction.
Indeed, such was the extent of the prescription and evidence that genuine pharmaceutical grade pregabalin was leaking into the illicit market, ministers decided in 2019 to criminalize possession without a prescription by making it a Class C drug and placing stricter limits on how it can be prescribed.
The intention was that such measures would lead to a reduction in prescriptions, but the opposite has happened. Numbers seen by I show that before graduation, 593,000 sachets of pregabalin were prescribed per month. That figure now stands at a quarterly average of 715,000, a 20% increase since 2019.
Evidence suggests that the burden of problems arising from pregabalin, both in its prescribed and counterfeit forms, is not shared equally across Britain. Prof Ian Hamilton, an addictions expert at the University of York, said: ‘Prescriptions have increased [since 2019]. But this increase will not be distributed in the same way as with other drugs. As with opiates, there is a clear divide between north and south. This is particularly between the areas of precariousness and those of ease. You see higher prescribing rates for these drugs in socially disadvantaged northern regions.
Nowhere is the grip of pregabalin and other increasingly popular drugs such as ‘street benzos’ – powerful analogues of the sedating benzodiazepine – more evident than on Bury New Road in Manchester’s Cheetham Hill , a well-known hub for counterfeit Viagra designer trainer products.
Professor Robert Ralphs, a criminologist at Manchester Metropolitan University who has spent years studying the city’s drugs market with colleagues, said the Bury New Road had become the center of a thriving drug trade. pregabalin in the North West, with street vendors peddling counterfeit pills imported from India, like those discovered in the chutney lot, and Eastern Europe.
Chemical analysis of counterfeit pills suggests that they contain only about a third of the active ingredient found in prescription pills, which means users will tend to take larger amounts to try and get the drug. desired effect of delaying heroin withdrawal symptoms.
Professor Ralphs said: ‘Pregabalin tends to be used with other drugs, mainly heroin. And because [the pregabalin] is known as counterfeit, instead of taking one or two, people take a whole pack – seven, 10 or 12 tablets – at a time. There are reports of people taking 20 or more at one time.
In order for users to maintain their habit, a trend has emerged whereby individuals travel considerable distances to Bury New Road to make bulk purchases before returning to areas such as Cumbria, Lancashire and North Wales. to sell on “pregga” for profit, thereby establishing informal distribution networks.
Prof Ralphs said: “Bury New Road is the epicenter of prescription drugs for the North West. What we are seeing are people getting their monthly benefit and then using that money to go out and buy boxes at a time at 40p or 50p per pill. They then go back to the area they came from and sell them for £1 a pill. In more rural areas they can cost £2 per tablet. They then use this money to buy the drug of their choice, such as heroin or crack.
Alongside the street trading is what experts say is a booming online market with pills being bought on the so-called dark web and shipped via first class mail. Another threat is that full-strength prescription pills are being diverted to the illegal market, either by illicit imports or by users in Britain, meaning that users accustomed to counterfeit pills at low concentration can unintentionally overdose.
It is understood that packs of full-strength pills have recently been imported from Serbia and China.
It’s a trade that the authorities are trying to thwart, with some success. The UK’s medicines watchdog, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, said it seized 285,000 suspected non-compliant medicines and medical devices in an annual crackdown with Border Force earlier this year. ‘summer. A government spokesperson said: ‘We are committed to combating the illegal trade and use of illegally obtained prescription drugs, including pregabalin, which is costing lives.
And yet, there is evidence that the flow of counterfeit pregabalin to places like Bury New Road and the risk it poses to its users is unlikely to diminish any time soon. Last month, Kuwaiti customs officials announced that they had seized fake pregabalin tablets believed to be from a British distributor containing a veterinary painkiller that is highly carcinogenic to humans.
A British police source said I“People are used to a global supply chain for bicycles or washing machines. What they often don’t realize is that we now have a global supply chain for illegal drugs and the people behind it don’t care what effect it has as long as they make a handsome profit .
The result is a grim and crushing death toll among people unable to get adequate treatment and whose bodies can no longer withstand the cumulative effects of what often amounts to decades of abuse.
Professor Ralphs said: ‘People are gorging on pregabalin and that’s when you hear about people talking about their friends dying. They use a whole cocktail of substances ranging from alcohol and cannabis to other drugs. They could be using four or five central nervous system depressants at once, and in large quantities, and they just don’t wake up from it. People die in their sleep.