Zopiclone, a prescription-only sleeping pill that can become addictive if used too long, is readily available online, say a team of toxicologists.

“Not only do these websites bypass necessary oversight required for supply, they provide access for vulnerable people who may buy it for self-poisoning, suicide, or misuse,” wrote the scientists in their new study.

Increasingly, people use “Z drugs” as sleeping aids. (While zombie fans may be leaping to conclusions right now, the reason for this unusual moniker is many though not all of the names of these pills begin with the letter ‘z.’) These hypnotics work as central nervous system depressants and help people get to sleep faster and remain asleep throughout the night.

Available only with prescription, zopiclone (brand names Zimovane and Imovane) is recommended for short-term use only, a week or less. Using these pills for two weeks, even, or more could cause addiction or withdrawal symptoms if you stopped taking the pills suddenly. Doctors recommend weaning yourself off of them. The usual side effects from these pills include feeling drowsy, dizzy, lightheaded, clumsy, or unsteady. Rarely, people will react in much more extreme ways, such as hallucinating, feeling confused, or even developing suicidal thoughts.

Interestingly, zopiclone was the sixth most common drug query during 2013 and 2014 in the United Kingdom’s version of Poison Control system. And, in 2014, UK regulatory authorities decided to classify zopiclone as a controlled drug, which carries penalties for those caught selling them. Having recently cared for a patient who overdosed on 100 tablets of zopiclone that had been purchased online, the research team decided to conduct a simple investigation:

Where could a person buy zopiclone online?

Doing a search, the research team identified 37 websites selling zopiclone tablets in quantities of up to 2,000. Of these, 35 sites also sold other benzodiazepines or Z drugs while 15 of the total offered bulk discounts. Though 24 sites provided information and/or warnings about dosage, 22 clearly stated that no prescription was necessary, and 14 made no mention of this at all.

"Regulatory authorities must take measures to ensure that these websites comply with medicines and other regulations for the supply of this prescription only drug," concluded the researchers. Seemingly, many people feel capable of handling at least some of their medical needs without professional assistance and they are using the far-reaching power of the Internet to help them do this.

"People’s increasingly consumerist approach to health care provision provides new regulatory challenges," said the researchers. Digital freedom and safety do not easily walk hand-in-hand.

Source: Ho JH, Wood DM, Archer JRH, Dargan PI. Availability of prescription zopiclone over the internet. BMJ. 2015.