The 3p pill that costs scores of lives

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A multi-million pound illegal trade in a sleeping tablet that costs a few pence to make has caused hundreds of deaths and amputations.

The black market in the sedative temazepam has led doctors and welfare workers in Scotland, where the problem is most acute, to describe the trade as "slaughter by needle".

Around 50 people die each year in the Strathclyde region alone after mixing temazepam with other drugs, mainly heroin. This year, with more than 30 deaths so far, the toll is set to reach a record high.

Some 150 addicts have also had limbs amputated because the drug, which addicts extract from the gel-filled capsules and crush tablets and inject, solidifies in their veins, blocking arteries and causing gangrene. Users have lost arms, legs, fingers, toes and testicles.

Organised criminals have realised the potential profits to be made from the drug - tablets can have a 1,000 per cent mark up.

Earlier this year a consignment of 1.5 million capsules was seized by police. In April a wholesaler with a Home Office licence was jailed for selling 3.8 million tablets on the blackmarket.

On Wednesday, the Government announced curbs on prescribing the drug and a tightening of security at wholesalers and manufacturers. But last night drug experts and the Labour Party called for even tighter restrictions.

Ministers have so far refused to accept recommendations made almost two years ago by the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, that the drug be rescheduled so that it becomes illegal to possess and far harder to obtain.

Mike Linnell, of the Lifeline Drugs project in Manchester, said: "The Government is fiddling while Rome burns - the changes are unlikely to do a lot of good. This will not stop people abusing the drug."

The changes announced by Tony Newton, the Leader of the Commons, on Wednesday will do little to prevent the criminals who set up bogus companies and use fake export licences to buy hundreds of thousands of tablets from wholesalers.

The Home Office and Department of Health intend to ban prescription of gel-filled capsules, which are the most dangerous to inject. They will also force manufacturers and wholesalers to improve security at their premises. However it is understood that although they have stated they intend to continue considering whether to reclassify the sedative, a decision has been made to leave it as a schedule 4 drug. If it was to be made a schedule 3 substance an individual could only obtain it from a chemist with a hand written doctor's prescription, rather than a computerised repeat prescription. They would also have to monitor the sale of the drug and keep it locked up.

Critics believe the decision is partly driven by the DoH's desire to keep the costs down. Temazepam is much cheaper than most alternatives.

George Howarth, a Labour home affairs spokesman, said temazepam should be re-scheduled "as a matter of some urgency. This is the best means by which the controls could be tightened up."

Greg Poulter, deputy director of Release, the national drug advice charity, welcome the new measures, but added: "If the Government thinks it will solve the problem it is being naive, they will simply crush up the tablets and inject them."

Killer drug, page 3