Sleeping pill abuse on the rise

SINGAPORE - Dormicum is one pill that seems to be giving regulators a big headache.

The sedative is part of the benzodiazepine family, typically prescribed to ease insomnia or anxiety attacks.

But it has been hogging headlines recently for the wrong reasons.

The sleeping pill - listed under the Poisons Act - was allegedly used by the Facebook rapist to sedate his victims before he attacked them.

Known as a date-rape drug overseas, it can cause memory loss and is used to commit sex crimes in places like Thailand.

For almost 10 years now, Dormicum has gained favour among heroin and Subutex abusers. It's easy to see why.

It can be bought and consumed legally - as long as you have a prescription. It retails at about $2 a pill. On the black market, it sells for $7 to $9 each.

In contrast, a 0.2g straw of heroin commands $50.

Former addict Johnny Chin, 38, said: "It was easy to get Dormicum from general practitioners (GPs). I would lie about working overseas and needing more pills. Some docs didn't even ask any questions."

The former secret society gang member used to inject a cocktail of drugs up to 15 times a day.

Using Dormicum enhanced the high, he claimed. "At that time (2006), it was the trend to take heroine and Subutex. Chances are, you'll also take Dormicum."

Abusers are known to mix Dormicum with Subutex before injecting the compound into their bodies. His addiction became so bad, his veins collapsed.

"So I ended up standing in front of the mirror, trying to inject the drug into my neck," he recalled.

Patchy history

Mr Chin's story adds to Singapore's patchy history with hypnotics like benzodiazepines and barbiturates (sleep-inducing tranquilisers).

While useful in treating many illnesses, their potential for abuse is troubling.

For instance, barbiturates were popularly used to treat insomnia and anxiety in the 60s.

But a slight overdose can be fatal: Hollywood sex siren Marilyn Monroe died from acute barbiturate poisoning in 1962.

Barbiturates fell out of favour after benzodiazepines were introduced in the 70s.

Another example is the sedative nimetazepam or Erimin-5. Abusers sometimes mix it with Subutex to replace their heroin fix.

To prevent abuse, the Health Ministry (MOH) included nimetazepam as a controlled drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1992.


Then, there's Subutex.

Used to wean addicts off heroin, Subutex became such a widely abused problem that the authorities banned it in 2006.

Given the chequered past, MOH is looking into expanding the Central Drug Prescribing Registry (CDPR) to monitor benzodiazepines.

It tightened guidelines in 2008, so doctors have to maintain detailed records on why the drugs were dispensed - and alert the ministry if they suspect a patient is addicted to a benzodiazepine. Are these steps enough? Or are tighter laws needed?

Mr Lionel de Souza, 70, said: "It doesn't matter what the laws are. Addicts will always find loopholes to abuse drugs."

The retired police officer, who spent 23 years handling drug busts, added: "The Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) and front-line agencies are doing a good job to check the supply.

"The Government is also doing a good job in bringing errant doctors (who prescribe the drugs) to task."

A CNB spokesman said the bureau "has been working closely with the Health Sciences Authority to share information on suspected Dormicum abusers and activities".

From last year to this June, there were three major joint operations against illicit drug activities, he added.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said in last November's regional situation annual report that Singapore's drug threat has been contained, "largely (due to) intensive law enforcement efforts and strict laws against drug trafficking and consumption".

Psychiatrist Dr Munidasa Winslow, too, does not see the (benzodiazepine) problem going out of control.

"Less people (are) seeking help for dependence on hypnotics than before... (GPs) are a lot more careful these days as they're more aware of the potential pitfalls of administering hypnotic medications.

"I understand that many clinics do not even carry hypnotics in their dispensaries."

Besides educating doctors on addiction medicine, perhaps the key is "to be aware of the dangers, and put in place policies from the beginning to prevent abuse," Dr Winslow added.


National Addictions Management Service (Nams): 6-RECOVER (6732 6837) / For more information, go to

The New Charis Mission: 6483 3707

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