Pregabalin/Lyrica: Class C call over abuse of 'bud' drug
A prescription drug being abused by teenagers in NI should be made a class C drug, health officials have said.
Pregabalin, also known by the brand name Lyrica, is an anti-epileptic drug also used to relieve chronic pain.
Last year, pregabalin was prescribed more in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK.
The drug has been linked to the death of a teenager earlier this year. It was one of a cocktail of drugs used by Aaron Strong, 19.
'With Lyrica, I see people running about like zombies'
An ex-drug user, who lost his teenage friend to suicide after a battle with drugs, has told BBC News NI that abuse of Lyrica is "wrecking lives".
The Belfast teenager, who spoke anonymously, said he first took the drug when he was 16 and that it is freely available in his community.
It is illegal to have class C drugs without a prescription and illegal to supply or sell them to others.
The Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs made the recommendation in a letter to ministers, including the then home secretary Theresa May, in January.
The letter cited warnings from the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) who highlighted "significant misuse and abuse" of the drug.
Pregabalin is known as "bud" or "Budweisers" by recreational users because it is makes them feel the same high as if they were drunk.
Life on Lyrica: Geoff Savage, drug counsellor
I am a prescribed user of Lyrica.
There's a stigma around drugs prescribed by professionals. That they're safe and not harmful. Prescribed drugs can sometimes be more serious if they're not taken properly.
Being someone who takes it, I know the dangers with it. I once overdosed by accident. I was out of my head.
Joe Brogan, the HSCB's head of pharmacy, said the problem "appears to be a growing issue".
In 2012, Mr Brogan wrote to GPs and pharmacists telling them to be aware of the "potential misuse of the drug".
It is understood that some doctors have written to patients who have been prescribed Lyrica to say they may need to review the dosage.
"We've been raising it with general practitioners and prescribers in primary care to be mindful of repeat prescriptions of the drug," said Mr Brogan.
"It can be a challenge for prescribers to understand if the patient is getting sufficient treatment as it's often used for a chronic pain issue."
Pregabalin can be ordered online. It is understood it has been coming into Northern Ireland in fairly constant levels for a number of years, along with other prescription drugs including diazepam and temazepam.
Packages of the drug ordered by customers in Northern Ireland are intercepted by the National Crime Agency (NCA) and the UK Border Agency at airports in England every week.
Analysis: Vincent Kearney, BBC News NI home affairs correspondent
The organised crime branch of the PSNI is notified about every seizure of the drug and decides what action, if any, is to be taken.
If the quantity of drugs intercepted is considered insignificant the police may decide not to take investigative action, but intelligence about the specified delivery address is recorded for possible future use.
The drugs are then destroyed.
If the quantity of drugs is large, or it is believed a seizure could be linked to an ongoing operation by the serious organised crime branch, or connected to an individual regarded as a significant criminal figure, the drugs are retained for possible use as evidence in a future court case.
If they are used in this way, they are destroyed when the court case is completed.
Stephen Andrews, a community worker in north Belfast, said the drug is a "serious problem".
"I first came across Lyrica about a year ago," he said. "Myself and a colleague were called out by a residents to a young person who was banging his head off a brick wall repeatedly.
"He was covered in blood and wired out of his head. We took him to hospital and later found out he was on this drug.
"It's a strange drug. It might make you take your clothes off because you are too warm, it makes you feel like you have super strength. You feel no pain."
Mr Andrews said he believes the drug badly affects the mental health of users and can lead to depression and suicide in users.
"Kids are always looking for the next high. Our fear is that people have been taking it for a period of time and we're not aware of it yet. These people will get in a very bad way."
Alex Bunting. from Addiction NI, said the drug was finding its way onto the streets after being prescribed.
"It seems to be a drug that's highly prescribed and a drug that's open to abuse.
"We are seeing a developing use in communities. There is no doubt it is being used by a lot of people for legitimate treatment but there are also people seeking it out for its effects.
"A black market exists for it."
In our original story published in October, we linked the death of teenager Aaron Fox to the use of the prescription drug Lyrica.
Aaron's family have asked us to make clear that their son's death was not as a result of taking Lyrica and that he died as a result of mental health problems.
BBC News NI apologises for the distress caused to the family by our report.