The moves to make temazepam a controlled drug are intended to crack down on the lucrative black market in the popular "rave" scene drug. Addicts have been mixing it with heroin and other substances with often fatal results. Last year in Glasgow alone, 97 addicts died after making the lethal mixture. Scores more have had to have gangrenous limbs amputated because temazepam, when injected, can block arteries.
At the same time the drug has been linked to gangland killings and escalating crime. Again in Scotland, where temazepam abuse is more acute, more than 10 men have been murdered in drugs-related conflicts.
Under the controls announced yesterday, people possessing the sleeping tablet without a valid doctor's prescription will face criminal charges, carrying up to two years in jail; pharmacies will have to keep the drug more securely; and manufacturers and distributors will now require import and export licences. The Government is expected, after further consultation, to introduce later in the year a complete ban on the "jelly" gel-form of the drug, which has been implicated in most deaths.
But patients properly prescribed temazepam will continue to get the medicines they need and GPs can continue to prescribe in the normal way. However health boards in Scotland will be asked to review the prescribing of the drug. Around seven million prescriptions for temazepam are issued each year - 850,000 of them north of the border.
The changes were announced by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, in London and Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, in Glasgow. Mr Howard said: "Temazepam has a genuine medical use. What I want to stop is its abuse."
Mr Forsyth said: "Drug dealers already face severe and lengthy punishment for supplying temazepam - a maximum of five years in prison, an unlimited fine or both. But now unlawful possession of the drug will carry up to two years in prison, an unlimited fine or both."
But yesterday the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse, the drug services umbrella organisation, said the proposals will add to pressures on the police and criminal justice system - but would do nothing to divert temazepam and other drug users into treatment services.
Roger Howard, chief executive, said: "Supply-side controls are only one step. The level of legal demand needs to be addressed through far better GP and public education. Six or seven million prescriptions will still be written each year, and some of this will inevitably leak onto an illicit market. It is no coincidence that some of the highest reported levels of temazepam use come from areas with acute economic and social problems. We cannot be complacent that controls will solve the problem, when the root causes remain the same."
Labour also gave the proposals, which come into force on 21 November, a guarded welcome. John McFall, Labour's Scottish home affairs spokesman, said Mr Forsyth was only "tinkering". Measures should also include treatment for abusers and more education for youngsters and GPs.