Manchester

Transquiliser addicts need help: Labour MP Jim Dobbin

A Greater Manchester MP has urged the government to help the tens of thousands of people in the North West hooked on prescription medication.

Jim Dobbin, the Labour MP for Heywood and Middleton, said the government was "in denial" about the problem.

The Department of Health said it had called experts to discuss the problem.

More people are prescribed the potentially addictive tranquilisers benzodiazepines in the North West than anywhere else in England.

Mr Dobbin, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Involuntary Tranquilliser Addiction, said: "The government, as far as I'm concerned, is in denial about the state of the problem."

'Just unbelievable'

The MP also blamed family doctors.

"Because of the repeated prescription process, I know someone who's been on tranquilisers for 45 years. That is just unbelievable," he said.

Dr Ravi Mene, Secretary of the Salford and Trafford Local Medical Committee, said it was too easy to blame doctors.

"I don't think GPs are prescribing irresponsibly. Repeat prescriptions are monitored by general practitioners and are kept on as to whether patients are actually using medication.

The GP from Stretford added: "But there will be some unscrupulous patients who will misuse it without telling doctors they are misusing it."

The Royal College of GPs has organised a training event on addiction to medicine.

The Department of Health said it was convening a round-table meeting of experts to discuss action which needs to be taken.

Every town

More than 5,000 people are hooked on the drugs - nicknamed "benzos" - in the Oldham area alone, according to The National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse.

Experts said that figure was similar in every town across the North West.

"Once a month I just get a four-page script and go to the chemist and collect the drugs.

"It's as easy as that," said Muhammad Isak, from Royton, who has been hooked for the past 16 years, after he was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder on leaving the armed forces at the age of 29.

"I've been withdrawing for three years now and I've got my life back, but I feel like I've been robbed because I don't remember the other years of my life," he added.

The drugs are commonly prescribed to treat insomnia and anxiety.

They work by depressing or calming the central nervous system, but that can lead to poor concentration, loss of memory and mental confusion, among other side effects.

"You've no short-term memory, you've no concentration," said Kevin Dewhurst, an addict from Bury who has been taking the drug for the past 17 years since having a nervous breakdown.

Image caption Ex-addict Barry Haslam says GPs should have therapists in their surgeries to help addicts

"You can't feel emotions, high or low. You're operating on automatic pilot - you're like a zombie basically."

Government guidance is that the drug should be prescribed for a maximum of four weeks.

More than a third of prescriptions in England between 1991 and 2009 were for more than eight weeks, according to a report this year by the National Addiction Centre.

Some experts say "benzos" can be harder to come off than heroin. There is only one NHS-funded withdrawal service in England.

The service, run by Addiction Dependency Solutions, offers help with medication as well as counselling and acupuncture and works in conjunction with support group Oldham Tranx.

Addicts, former addicts and trained nurses from ADS meet once a week to offer help and talk through withdrawal regimes.

'So wrong'

But its founder Barry Haslam, who was addicted to "benzos" for 10 years, said it was overstretched.

"We've had people coming from Staffordshire, Burnley, Liverpool, Huddersfield, because there's nothing in their area - and that's got to be so wrong.

"We're ex-addicts doing this on a voluntary basis. Where's the NHS and the Department of Health in all this?"

He added: "What should be happening is that GPs have therapists in surgeries and that should be the first port of call, not these drugs. They should be the last.

"People finish off addicted through no fault of their own. These drugs don't cure anything."

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