Class tramadol with heroin and cocaine, says Northern Ireland medical expert
A former Northern Ireland State Pathologist has called for prescription medicine tramadol to be made a class A drug alongside heroin and cocaine.
Professor Jack Crane made the comments after an inquest found that English mum-of-six Emma May (34) died last June as result of becoming hooked on the opiate-based painkiller taken by thousands of people every day.
The leading expert in forensic medicine said her death served as "yet another reminder" of the dangers of tramadol.
"People seem to assume that tramadol is safe because it is prescribed by doctors, but in my mind it is just as dangerous as heroin and should be reclassified as a class A drug," he said.
"Doctors seem to prescribe it fairly readily. In the case of Mrs May, it proved too easy to get hold of. There's a sense that patients can just go to their GP, say Panadol is not working and that they need something stronger, and suddenly they are taking an opioid.
"But, like morphine and heroin, tramadol is highly addictive. If you are taking it regularly you then develop a tolerance to it, which means you need to take even more for it to be effective.
"We have seen an increasing number of fatalities in Northern Ireland, and there is a similar trend in England and Wales too."
Mrs May started taking the medication - which became a controlled drug in 2014 - following a drink-drive crash in January 2016 that left a Royal Marine volunteer badly injured.
Last week Coroner Andrew Cox found that she had not intended to take her own life but had become dependent on the prescribed pills, even lying to her GP to feed her addiction. Her lifeless body was discovered next to two empty tramadol packets by her 20-year-old daughter.
The number of deaths in Northern Ireland related to misuse of the opiate-based drug has been on the rise and earlier this year it was revealed that more people lost their lives taking narcotics than the number of people killed on our roads.
The medicine is safe when used correctly but can prove deadly when mixed with other drugs, including alcohol.
Coroner Joe McCrisken also appealed for greater control of the drug during the inquest into an 18-year-old west Belfast man in April 2016.
As well as tramadol, Aaron Strong had phenazepam and diazepam in his system when he was taken to hospital.
Tramadol, which was reclassified in 2014, making it a class C drug without a prescription, has been linked to hundreds of deaths in the UK.
Concluding the inquest into the death of Londonderry man Stephen Booth at the beginning of this year, coroner Paddy McGurgan described tramadol as a "scourge on society".
He said the amount of tramadol found in Mr Booth's body - combined with two other drugs - was above therapeutic levels.
Last month TV star Ant McPartlin checked into rehab after he revealed details of his struggle with prescription drugs and alcohol.
The presenter is thought to have become addicted to tramadol after suffering from chronic pain as a result of a knee injury.