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BBC: 'Jaw-dropping' MHRA report includes 50 pharmacies under scrutiny

MHRA: Pregabalin is one of the drugs being diverted onto the black market
MHRA: Pregabalin is one of the drugs being diverted onto the black market

Fifty pharmacies have so far been implicated in an investigation into the diversion of prescription-only medicines (POMs) onto the criminal market, the BBC has claimed.

BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 programme – which aired last night – aimed to investigate the “extensive network of criminality involving businesses such as wholesale dealers and registered pharmacies” diverting POMs to be sold illegally online, which the UK’s medicines watchdog revealed earlier in the day (January 30).

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said that its latest crackdown – which leads on from its 2016 investigation into the “significant diversion of benzodiazepines and other hypnotics/anxiolytics” onto the black market – involves a “small number of registered pharmacies”.

The BBC – which claimed to have seen a full copy of the MHRA’s intelligence report – said 50 pharmacies have so far been implicated in the investigations.

“Frankly, it’s jaw-dropping,” presenter Allan Urry said in the programme.

“There are around 20 investigations covering the UK, 71 people are potentially involved – 18 pharmacists, 11 doctors, 62 companies, and 50 pharmacies,” he claimed.

“According to the MHRA intelligence report, pharmacists are involved in 90% of the cases they are investigating,” Mr Urry alleged.

At time of going to press, the MHRA had not responded to C+D's request to confirm these figures.

“White collar insiders”

According to the BBC, the report references “a solid interface” between “white collar” workers operating “inside the regulated supply chain”, and “organised criminal groups”.

The “epicentre” of the criminal network stems from “the north-west of England – running through the [Staffordshire] potteries, the Midlands and onto London”, the BBC added.

Investigations so far have focused on diazepam, nitrazepam, temazepam, zopiclone, zolpidem, pregabalin, gabapentin and tramadol in “all strengths, in tablet form”, the MHRA said yesterday.

In the radio programme, MHRA head of enforcement Alastair Jeffrey said the agency has also investigated three websites where POMs were being sold illegally.

“On these three websites, up to 100 transactions per day [were] being made for these types of medicines. We're looking at something in the region of £55 million having gone through these three websites over a 12-15 month period,” he said in the programme.

“That is probably a conservative estimate.”

The MHRA would not reveal to C+D the names of the pharmacies, wholesalers and websites involved in the ongoing investigations.

The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) said yesterday that five pharmacists have been suspended under “interim orders” while the investigation is ongoing.

The regulator told C+D today that the five suspensions include the two pharmacists in Yorkshire who were arrested in relation to the purchase of more than 200,000 packs of benzodiazepines “and other powerful drugs”, as part of the MHRA’s 2016 investigation.

Catch up with last night's File on 4 episode, ‘A Deadly Prescription’, on BBCiPlayer here

Are you aware of patients buying POMs illegally?

Jonny Johal, Pharmacy Area manager/ Operations Manager

Think back on the last TV investigation when reporters were able to buy controlled drugs over the counter, with reference to the current situation, I’d be interested to know where these pharmacies and wholesalers are based geographically, and the ethnicity of the pharmacist offenders. 

Mohammed Patel, Community pharmacist

Why on Earth is the ethnicity of the offenders relevant? I find this to be an absolutely disgraceful comment.

Jonny Johal, Pharmacy Area manager/ Operations Manager

Mr Patel, if you saw the BBC programme a few years ago, you would have noticed the featured pharmacists from whom they chose to purchase POMs from illegally were largely from ethnic minorities. I would like to see if the MHRA’s investigation has any ethnic bias, don’t you? I am from an ethnic minority. I think it is a legitimate point of interest. Why do you think that is disgraceful?

Mohammed Patel, Community pharmacist

Because it is pure racism! Racism has been contemptable in this country for decades. People should not be categorised or stereotyped purely because of their ethnicity. Many large immigrant families now have 3 generations born here, and, even though their skin maybe a diferent colour, in many cases they are BRITISH! 

Racism has no place in our society today.

Interleukin -2, Community pharmacist

Why do you need the ethnicity of the alleged offenders?  Which of your primordial itches will it scratch ? 

Jonny Johal, Pharmacy Area manager/ Operations Manager


Do see if you can find that programme on the iPlayer.


Reeyah H, Community pharmacist

Stefan I totally agree with you. I was discussing exactly this with a colleague. It all seems to have happened since the first Cat M cuts. The behaviour of these pharmacists is inexcusable but there are reasons. 

Mohammed Patel, Community pharmacist

If you put enough pressure and intimidation upon your employees, they will always end up doing something that they shouldn't do. They don't want to do it and their employers don't want them to do it either, although the employer only cares about the bottom line. Pharmacists are real people, with real families, real bills and real mortgages.

The only thing that is "jaw-dropping" is the fact that highly educated people are resorting to these measures to put food on the table for their families.

Yes, they have broken the law, but why are we not asking "why are they doing it"? 

With the disgraceful amount of debt pharmacy students are graduating with, and the massive financial cutbacks in the pharmacy sector, we should be expecting to see more desperate behaviour from pharmacists who have been spiritually destroyed by the incredulous amount of pressure poured upon their shoulders.

If pharmacists were both treated and paid properly, these kinds of things would never even be a temptation for them.

With the current state of affairs within the pharmacy world we should expect more of the scandals, although the only real scandal is that Pharmacists have to work for many years to become qualified and then decide they must do these kinds of things to prevent their house from being repossessed. It seems like pure desperation on their part.

Jonny Johal, Pharmacy Area manager/ Operations Manager

No excuse! There are others in the same situation who are not criminals. Pure greed! Lock them up forever. 

Mohammed Patel, Community pharmacist

Is it pure greed, or pure desperation? Should we really lock people up in prisons with free food, no bills, a playstation 4 and a free pool table when it costs the taxpayer over 40k a year? The criminals are having the last laugh.

Jonny Johal, Pharmacy Area manager/ Operations Manager

Mr Patel, If you look at the government statistics on business failures, especially in the first 3 years of any business, you will see that there are many people in the 'desperate' category (your term), but the vast majority of them do not resort to criminal activities and become drug dealers. I myself have also been in 'desperate' situations before, with bank loans to pay off, but I was never tempted to sell diazepam on the streets.

As to whether they should be locked up, my opinion is a very solid "yes", legally speaking, I believe drug dealing is a serious offense which if committed by a pharmacist should attract extra severe penalties. Their families should also be investigated to see if they have any knowledge of the offences, as I understand 'aiding an offender' is also a criminal offence. Any illegal gains should be confiscated or repaid to the relevant authorities.

Your intervention in this debate tells me something about your disposition which, as a professional pharmacist, I am not comfortable with.

Mohammed Patel, Community pharmacist

Well-educated and decent people do not commit crime for "fun".  And pharmacists work very hard to get on the register. Very hard indeed.

We should be trying  to understand why they are commiting that crime in the first place, and solving that issue within society.

Very easy to say "lock them all up" when you are at the end of your career on a massive pension in the home counties, isn't it? And to some extent, I would agree, a crime is a crime in any case.

But there are some times when you need to see the bigger picture. Why is this happening and what are we doing about it? Because pharmacists, by and large, didn't waste all that time and money to commit crime.

They could have easily gone into a life of crime involving theft, fraud and drug dealing, without the effort of getting a masters degree in pharmacy!

My intervention in this debate only serves to consider previously unconsidered views which you obviously cannot comprehend.

Any moron can lock people up for committing crimes. People have been doing it for centuries. But it takes a different kind of person to try and understand why they are doing it, and actually get at the root of the problem.

Jonny Johal, Pharmacy Area manager/ Operations Manager

Let me repeat, there are many pharmacists who work hard making ends meet. If I find ‘explanations’ to excuse these pharmacist drug dealers, I would be insulting all the upstanding and morally driven pharmacists who have not been tempted by the dark side. I have professional pride. 

Hackney Drug Dealer, Community pharmacist

Stunning bit of ping-pong here guys.... but lets clarify about 'morons' and the 'law'. The LAW is absolute. 'Were you driving a vehicle in excess of the speed limit' is the question, not 'Why were you driving a vehicle in excess of the speed limit?' Mitigation should not be confused with a guilty/not guilty plea, that doesnt require a moron to execute as government law. If I were to be stupid enough to even try compete with the street drug dealers where I work, I would be equally in breach of the law whether I was a blue-collar or white-collar worker - perhaps even moreso as I might be perceived to have 'capability' regarding understanding the committed offense. A (not so) darling pharmacist down the road here, was sent down twice for selling OTC diazepam and (inevitably) struck off accordingly. NO sympathy, no excuses. 

geoffrey gardener, Community pharmacist

Guardian reporting two pharmacists arrested in Yorkshire, they had bought 200,000 packs of benzos, I think we are talking about needing to provide an extra bowl of gruel at mealtimes.

Adam Hall, Community pharmacist

I suspect that when the full details emerge, if they ever do, that those involved are not the down-trodden and beleagured resorting to desparate beahviour to put food on the table - rather they will be those who have a questionable moral compass who saw, or were introduced to, a way to "make a quick, easy buck", as they say. You say "spiritually destroyed"; I say "greedy crook" 

Reeyah H, Community pharmacist

Bit confusing. Yesterday the MHRA said ‘small number of pharmacies’ and now it’s 50. Both of these reports were given last year too. 50 pharmacies, yet only 5 pharmacists suspended, so it’s all a bit odd. I think the MHRA haven’t done their job for years, and no one has been regulated as they should have been. It’s all caught up now. 

Barry Pharmacist, Community pharmacist

Makes me think back to the London pharmacies selling POMs etc years ago.  There are always going to be some individuals where greed gets the better of them.

What really matters is who gets charged and then eventually found guilty. Long way to go on this but hopefully other pharmacies have woken up to the pitfalls of wholesaler dealing.

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