An anti-anxiety drug linked to drug abuse deaths across the globe has emerged as the primary substance of choice for addicts in the UAE, a senior doctor has said.
Gabapentin was listed as the most prevalent drug taken by addicts at the National Rehabilitation Centre (NRC).
The scale of abuse of the drug, which is available with a prescription in many countries, has only recently emerged.
In certain doses it induces a sedative effect and is said to be popular with opiate addicts.
The International Society of Addiction Medicine conference in Abu Dhabi heard on Thursday that medics are now seeing more patients addicted to gabapentin than tramadol, the tightly controlled painkiller often linked to many drug cases in the emirates' criminal courts.
Dr Nael Moustafa told addiction experts gathered at Emirates Palace that in 2013, a majority of NRC patients listed tramadol as their primary substance of abuse and that continued in 2014 and 2015. In fact, a 2015 study of 250 users found 40 per cent only used tramadol.
But last year tramadol was put into second place after gabapentin. Tramadol has since dropped to fourth place.
The anti-anxiety drug pregabalin, often marketed as Lyrica, is now the second most abused drug.
“This is what we know now,” said Dr Moustafa.
Last month, the British government said it intends to criminalise gabapentin, making it a 'class C' drug. It was previously available on prescription. Official figures linked it to 59 deaths in England and Wales. Pregabalin - which is also set to be criminalised - was linked to 111 deaths.
Earlier this month, reports in Scotland said that gabapentin had been listed as the cause of death in the death certificates of more than 150 people in 2016.
Drugs like tramadol, gabapentin, pregabalin are a challenge for police and addiction counsellors in the UAE, he said.
“What we see is patients start to experiment with drugs that were mainly prescribed [to them], and usually they experiment through their peers,” said Dr Moustafa.
He suggested that "a lot of private clinics" are not vigilant enough when it comes to prescribing tightly controlled medicines, often pain or anti-anxiety pills, to patients.
"There is a lot of doctor shopping. Patients will go to several primary clinics and get several packs of tramadol and then start using it," he said.
Away from official channels, the main source of drugs is on the black market, which he said are typically smuggled in from Iran, Egypt and India.