The rapid global spread of prescription drug addiction must be dealt with immediately, according to the head of the International Centre for Drug Policy at St George’s, University of London. And Professor Hamid Ghodse also issued a warning about uncontrolled new drugs being used for sexual abuse.

Professor Hamid Ghodse of St George’s made his prescription drugs plea at the launch of the International Narcotics Control Board’s 2009 report in Vienna. Prof Ghodse is former president of the INCB, the United Nations’ global drugs watchdog, and is one of the report’s authors.

The report stated that abuse of prescription drugs ‘is now the second most important drug abuse issue after cannabis,’ with 6.2 million people hooked on them in the United States in 2008.

“Abuse of such drugs has been spreading over the world in recent years,” said Prof Ghodse. “It needs to be tackled now.”

He added that the abuse of prescription drugs is a “hidden problem” so it is difficult to determine exactly how widespread it is. But as an example, Prof Ghodse said between 1.4 and 1.9 million people in Germany are thought to be addicted to prescription drugs. He also said that in Canada between one and three per cent of the population abuse prescription opioids, and that in several European countries, such as France, Italy, Lithuania and Poland, between 10 and 18 per cent of students use unprescribed sedatives or tranquilisers.

The INCB urged governments to monitor closely – or shut down – illegal internet pharmacies that sell stolen, diverted and counterfeited medicines around the world. These are a major supply source for prescription drug abusers.

The INCB also highlighted the rise in ‘date rape’ drugs. Prof Ghodse said that stricter controls by governments and the pharmaceutical industry had helped stem the use of rohypnol, which has previously been used commonly in sexual assault. But he said that newer drugs – such as ketamine and GBL – were replacing rohypnol because they are not controlled under international drug conventions.

Prof Ghodse said: “Since in many countries these drugs are readily available, they frequently fall into criminal hands.”

The report also highlighted the curriculum on substance misuse developed by the ICDP for undergraduate medicine courses. This was pioneered at St George's and is now being rolled out at all medical schools in England. The aims of the curriculum include enabling doctors to assist in the prevention and management of substance misuse and addiction, to help make future doctors aware of the risks posed by substance abuse to their own health and professional conduct, and to promote the proper care and protection of the general public.