Gangs have tricked or bribed pharmacists and medicine wholesalers for access to close to 160 million tablets over a three year period, the report found, with anxiety and insomnia drugs such as diazepam and zoplicone among those being distributed illegally. The tablets diverted into the black market during this period had a street value of up to £200 million.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency investigated the issue, leading to 41 arrests including those of five pharmacists. An intelligence document seen by BBC reporters reveals that criminal activity is concentrated in the north west of England, and that the network extends through the Potteries to the Midlands and London.
A Home Office official told the BBC that “tough enforcement is a fundamental part of the strategy and we are taking coordinated action to tackle illegal drug use alongside other criminal activity.”
MHRA enforcement head Alastair Jeffrey told the programme: “A typical example would be a wholesaler dealer or pharmacist ordering vast amounts of these particular types of medicines on behalf of the criminal who would then sell them generally on the internet.
"They have a sales team, a distribution team – this is a huge business and there is a massive amount of criminal profit to be made."
Three of the gang-run websites sold £55 million worth of prescription drugs over a 12-15 month period, with one found to be shifting 15,000 packs of zoplicone a day - worth as much as £505,950. One MHRA raid led to the recovery of over two million tablets.
Mr Jeffrey commented that the MHRA "has responsibility for regulating the supply chain, and it is our absolute priority to make sure that supply chain is secure.”
Commenting on members of the public who are buying medicines from the illegal websites. Mr Jeffrey said many of them “are just general members of the public, holding down good jobs, getting on with their lives who have unfortunately fallen into this type of drug use.”
“We are talking about thousands and thousands of people potentially that need some assistance,” Mr Jeffrey said.