UK troops receiving 'trigger happy' drug

The Scotsman
Jun. 13, 2007

BRITISH troops are being prescribed with a controversial drug which has been blamed for making US pilots "trigger-happy" and causing friendly fire deaths.

The Ministry of Defence has admitted that it prescribes the amphetamine dexedrine, which is capable of keeping users awake for as long as 60 hours.

While the MoD has refused to say what it uses the Class B drug for, leading narcotics experts say that the main purpose is to keep soldiers awake during special operations. However, they have warned that the substance can be highly addictive.

In addition, the MoD has admitted that it permits soldiers to take a drug called kava-kava, from the South Pacific, which is known to be linked to severe liver damage.

Documents obtained under Freedom of Information provisions show that although the amount the MoD spends on dexedrine is just 32 per year, this is estimated to be enough for several hundred 5mg doses. A typical course will see a user given the pills for about two or three days.

Outwith the armed forces, the amphetamine is used to treat narcolepsy, a condition where sufferers cannot stop falling asleep at random times.

In addition to dexedrine, the MoD dispenses a small number of tablets of ephedrine, which has a similar, though less potent, effect.

The ministry also spends about 3,000 a year on melatonin, a substance which aids sleep, in order to get the body clocks of troops into synch after flying long distances.

Amphetamines have been controversially used by the US Air Force to keep pilots awake on long missions, although the UK has always denied giving the 'go pills' to its pilots.

In 2002, the 'Tarnak Farm incident' saw US fighter-bombers attack a group of Canadian soldiers, killing four and wounding another eight near Kandahar in Afghanistan.

During official hearings into the incident, the US pilots testified that they had been ordered to take amphetamines to keep awake. The pilots blamed the pills for their actions.

One leading defence insider said: "There are not many uses for these drugs in the military apart from keeping soldiers awake for long periods. If you need them for narcolepsy then there is not much point in you being in the army.

"Is it operationally justified? Yes - if you are on deep patrol for days at a time then you need to be awake, otherwise you risk getting killed."

Dr Paul Skett, a drugs expert at Glasgow University's Institute of Biological and Life Sciences, said: "It is a matter of concern because these substances are very addictive indeed. They can also make the user aggressive."

The documents also reveal that the MoD has decided to permit the use of kava-kava, which is popular in Fiji and produces a euphoric high, provided local commanders don't believe its use compromises operational effectiveness.

It is usually taken as a drink after being ground to a fine powder and mixed with water.

An MoD policy paper on the substance said: "There is some medical evidence that kava-kava could be detrimental to health, in particular that it can cause severe liver damage."

It added: "Soldiers found to be using kava-kava should be advised of the potential health risks associated with it."

Stuart Crawford, defence analyst and former colonel in the Royal Tank Regiment, said: "Given the number of Fijian soldiers in the army, you could say it's not surprising."

There are an estimated 2,600 Fijians in the British Army.

An MoD spokeswoman said: "Decisions to prescribe medical products are taken for individual clinical reasons by the appropriately qualified service medical professionals."

She added: "Kava-kava is the national drink of Fiji. It is classed as a food and, as such, is a legal substance."

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