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UK pharmacies diverting prescription-only medicines to criminal market

MHRA: An estimated £115-200m of medicines were diverted onto the criminal market in three years

A “small number of pharmacies” are being investigated for diverting prescription-only medicines (POMs) onto the criminal market, the UK’s medicines watchdog has revealed.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has identified “an extensive network of criminality”, with businesses diverting POMs to be sold illegally online, it announced this morning (January 30).

The network involves “businesses such as wholesale dealers and a small number of registered pharmacies” across the UK, it said.

The MHRA told C+D it is unable to name the pharmacies involved while investigations are ongoing.

The watchdog’s latest crackdown leads on from its 2016 investigation into the “significant diversion of benzodiazepines and other hypnotics/anxiolytics” onto the black market.

Two pharmacists in Yorkshire were arrested in relation to the purchase of more than 200,000 packs of benzodiazepines “and other powerful drugs”, the MHRA said at the time.

The MHRA expanded its operations last year to cover 19 active investigations and has made more than 40 arrests, it explained.

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

The watchdog estimated that between 2013 and 2016, up to £200 million of medicines were diverted from the “legitimate” supply chain, onto the criminal market.

There is “no indication” that these practices have led to “medicines shortages or issues with the legitimate supply of medicines to the public”, it stressed.

Pharmacists suspended

General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) chief executive Duncan Rudkin said the regulator is “working closely with the MHRA on the ongoing investigations into these very serious criminal offences”.

“We have already taken action to suspend five pharmacists under interim orders,” Mr Rudkin added, “and are actively reviewing at each stage of the investigations whether we need to take further action to protect the public.”

The GPhC told C+D it would not reveal the names of the pharmacists while the interim suspension orders are in place.

The MHRA's announcement comes a week after pharmacy minister Steve Brine launched a “thorough evidence review” into prescription drug addiction.

The review will take account of a 2016-17 Home Office survey, which found that 7.6% of adults had taken a prescription-only painkiller not prescribed to them.

Are you aware of patients buying POMs illegally?

Boom Shakalaka, Locum pharmacist

Pure twaddle

Keith McElrea, Pharmaceutical Adviser

Any Pharmacist engaged in the criminal supply of POM's deserves the book to be thrown at them.  The industry is working so hard, under huge financial pressure to show that we are the solution for the NHS, and that better funding of pharmacy and pharmacy services pays dividends in saved resources elsewhere in the NHS.  These actions albeit from a tiny few, tarnish the whole industry just when we need to be the shining light.

Stephen Eggleston, Community pharmacist

Having listened to the Radio 4 programme, there are two separate issues here. One is, most definitely, those who seek to profit from the illegal supply of POMs. The other, and potentially more worrying issue is the level of demand from people who are prepared to circumvent the normal route of obtaining medication (i.e. via GP/prescription/pharmacist) and, instead, will pay significant sums to obtain what they want. There needs to be more done to identify those people who insist on continuing to medicate themselves when, presumably, their GP has decided they should not be taking the particular medication any more - not from a "your a bad person" point of view, more an educational/rehabilitation stance

CAPT FX, Locum pharmacist

I find it interesting that this report says a small number and once again we see individual Pharmacists being targeted. How about the big Multiples. If only we had a Regulator with the authority and the will to deal with this serious issue something will be done. Time and again we note batch numbers in Registered and Operating Multiples matching Batch numbers on the street. One can not deal with issues like this by pretending that Companies that own Pharmacies are god-like angels, so perfect that they are untouchables. I hope in my life time we wake up from this stupor and start protecting the Public in real terms, Mr Rudkin.





Mohammed Patel, Community pharmacist

I suspect it is a similar situation to how the HMRC operate. Far easier to go after individuals than it is to go after a big company with an expensive legal team who will make the investigation difficult.

Having to face a big legal team would be more time consuming and costly, and I suspect they think that there is a chance they could lose. But your average pharmacist cannot afford to mount such a legal defence so is easy pickings and keeps them in a job with a good success rate.

In a nutshell, they are scared to go after big companies and corporations, but not scared to go after you.

Freelance Chemist, Pre-reg Pharmacist

If I was to name the people involved I will be sued for defamation so I wont

Freelance Chemist, Pre-reg Pharmacist

This is nothing new, its these so called "pharmacy professionals" i.e technicans that are doing it.  These poor "professionals" get paid peanuts thus they resort to these crimes, they have nothing to lose as one told me in the past.

.....and they want them then to be in control on pharmacies without the pharmacist being present

Pharmacy Tech, Pharmaceutical Adviser

What part of this paragraph states this is "pharmacy professionals" i.e technicans?????

“We have already taken action to suspend FIVE PHARMACISTS under interim orders,” Mr Rudkin added, “and are actively reviewing at each stage of the investigations whether we need to take further action to protect the public.”

Freelance Chemist, Pre-reg Pharmacist

not everything is reported.  Im talking from first hand experience

O J, Pharmacy technician

I'll take the bait...

“We have already taken action to suspend five pharmacists under interim orders,” 

"Two pharmacists in Yorkshire "

Please let me know where "these so called pharmacy professionals" were mentioned in the story.

Freelance Chemist, Pre-reg Pharmacist

too many 'professionals' ........

Daniel McNulty, Superintendent Pharmacist

Thank you Grace.

I think the reporting should make that clear as makes it appear that more of our beleaguered profession are allegedly untrustworthy than actually are.

I am still concerned this is deliberate. 

Ilove Pharmacy, Non Pharmacist Branch Manager

Probably is. far simpler than looking at what the big boys are doing, systematically destroying the profession. Less than impartial outlets in press and media are required to get these 'stories' out disguised as 'protecting' the public.

Reeyah H, Community pharmacist

True. As there aren’t really any ‘updates’ as such. It’s the same ‘news’ as from 2016

James Waldron, Editorial

Hi Reeyah, as the story states, five pharmacists have now received interim suspensions in relation to this ongoing investigation.


Ilove Pharmacy, Non Pharmacist Branch Manager

Easy getting rid of individuals. different story with multiples.....

paul lisbon, GP

Why would anyone want to do this illegally, when i can see websites selling it legally:

Stephen Eggleston, Community pharmacist

Personally, I don't care who it is. I DO care that they are named, the pharmacies involved be named and they have the full force of the legal and professional sanctions brought against them. It is these people who stop the rest of us getting hold of the medicines we require to supply our patients without having to jump through umpteen hoops due to quotas, not to mention it puts the whole profession in a bad light

Daniel McNulty, Superintendent Pharmacist

I think we all do.

My concern was that, if it is the same case from 2016, that it has made front page news as another PR attack on pharmacy in line with the cuts we've had as per Chomsky

"That’s the standard technique of privatization: defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital."


Freelance Chemist, Pre-reg Pharmacist


GURNAM SINGH, Community pharmacist

I agree, and don't forget the recent Boots fiasco

Ilove Pharmacy, Non Pharmacist Branch Manager

Careful,  you'll get sued. Whay B++ts fiasco??

Daniel McNulty, Superintendent Pharmacist

Were these the same two Pharmacists arrestested in the article in December 2016?

If it is, why is being presented as current news?


Grace Lewis, Editorial

Hi Daniel,

The MHRA has informed us that the number of arrests quoted today (40) does include the two pharmacists from Yorkshire from its 2016 investigation.

Today's announcement is a update on the investigation into businesses diverting POMs to be sold illegally online.

Grace Lewis, C+D News Editor

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