Harriet Williamson Wednesday 19 Sep 2018 8:12 am Last November, Christina Craig died after taking a fake Valium pill. The tablets were known as ‘Blue Plague’. She was the fourth in a group of six friends in Glasgow to lose her life to what she believed to be Valium.
Scottish police estimate that there could be millions of fake Valium pills on the streets. Why is there a thriving market for the drug? Why aren’t users getting it on prescription?
Valium, also known as Diazepam, is part of a group of drugs called benzodiazepines. It’s a sedative recommended for short-term treatment only because it can quickly become addictive.
Valium isn’t usually prescribed for longer than two to four weeks at a time, and some GPs are uncomfortable prescribing it at all. The NHS lists the side effects of benzodiazepines as including drowsiness, difficulty concentrating, vertigo, low sex drive, headaches and the development of a tremor.
After four weeks of use, benzodiazepines may start to lose their efficiency, meaning that you need a higher dose to get the same effect. The way Valium loses potency and the potential for addiction are two reasons why GPs don’t regularly prescribe the drug for long-term conditions like anxiety, as they did when it was first released. Valium was created by Leo Sternbach and released in 1963. It became one of the most frequently prescribed medications in the world, and between 1968 and 1982, it was the highest selling medication in the US. More than two billion tablets were sold in 1978 alone.
Anxiety and insomnia had previously been treated with barbiturates, which caused extreme withdrawal symptoms, were highly addictive and easy to overdose with. Benzodiazepines like Valium seemed like the safer and more effective option, and they became the prescription solution for every problem.
The drug was particularly associated with women, and in 1966, the Rolling Stones even wrote a song about it, entitled ‘Mother’s Little Helper’. It took a long time for the addictive nature and negative side-effects of benzodiazepines to be recognised, despite research in the 1980s linking the long-term use of this drug group to brain damage and calling the drug ‘more difficult to withdraw people from than heroin’.
The NHS is now supposed to prescribe benzodiazepines for a maximum of four weeks to curb the potential for addiction. However, some doctors are failing to stick to guidelines published more than 20 years ago.