Pfizer's Lyrica (pregabalin) is to be reclassified following concerns over misuse.
On the back of a public consultation and advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the drug known on the street as ‘buds’ will be reclassified as a class C controlled substance from April.
The medication is used to treat epilepsy, neuropathic pain, fibromyalgia, restless leg syndrome, and generalised anxiety disorder, but can become severely addictive and has been linked to as many as 33 deaths in Northern Ireland just last year.
The number is a substantial jump from 2017, in which there were only eight Lyrica related deaths reported, meaning the problem has quadrupled in size. On news of the reclassification, selling or supplying the drug can now carry a prison sentence of 14 years.
Chris Rintoul, from Extern's Drugs & Alcohol Consultancy Service, told the media: "Just because pregabalin is a prescription drug, does not mean that it is not dangerous. In an ideal world, pregabalin would only be used as and how it is prescribed.
“Unfortunately, however, and even with the introduction of today's new legislation, the reality is that there are thousands of people in Northern Ireland, and many more globally, who will continue to use this drug who have not been prescribed it, or who will find themselves using it outside of their prescription limits.
"It is vital therefore, that as a society, we do as much as we can to enable those people to reduce the risk of harm to themselves.”
Prescriptions will also be limited to 30 days’ treatment, and repeat prescriptions will not be issued. Any prescription received must be dispensed within 28 days.