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Clampdown planned for British online pharmacies to stop patients getting strong painkillers

Sophie Courtney, 28, from Ilfracombe in Devon and mother to Willow, aged seven, and Oscar, four, is recovering after nine months as a prescription painkiller addict.

Talented and intelligent, she is reading psychology at Plymouth University. Yet until last summer she was taking an average of 60 opioid tablets a day. They came largely via the internet and she once spent £6,000 on four consignments of 1,000 tramadol pills sent in quick succession from a Canadian website. ‘Sometimes it was 40 a day, sometimes it was 80. It depended how I felt,’ she says.

Her life has been beset by trauma. At 19 she lost her first child, Harley, at five days old, to a botched hospital resuscitation attempt. She has spent most of the decade since on antidepressants, moving from job to job. Three years ago she received £100,000 from the NHS in compensation for the loss of her son. Shortly after that, she was working out in the gym when she ruptured her calf muscle.

‘It was agony and I was prescribed codeine, which didn’t do anything. Then I was prescribed tramadol,’ she says.

‘I never drank or smoked in the past but once I got this injury and started taking these tablets, it became a pure addiction within days. By the end of the first week I was taking double what was prescribed because I needed many more to get any effect from them.’

As the body rapidly becomes used to opioids, it needs larger and larger doses to have any effect.

‘Within a month I was taking 30 a day and within two months I was taking 60,’ Sophie says. ‘It got to the point where I couldn’t get enough from the doctor and was getting my family and friends to get prescriptions for me. My mum could get tramadol because she had arthritis and she would give me a few.

‘It wasn’t really about the pain — in between doses I felt so desperate I needed the next one. I was lying and manipulating people all the time to get them. I found I could function if I had ten tramadol and ten dihydrocodeine a day, which were prescribed by the GP — and the extra off the internet.

‘I used five websites in the UK to get codeine, spending at least £1,000 for just over two weeks’ supply.

‘I just scanned the document describing my calf muscle injury and emailed it to different online pharmacies. Within 12 hours a doctor would OK it and they would send out the drugs.

‘At one stage I went to the GP and told him I had just spent £6,000 on them. He said he would push for me to be referred to the drug treatment service. I saw them three times and they wanted to put me on a reducing programme of drug use. I freaked out at the idea of reducing my intake, so it didn’t happen.’

By then Sophie has just £4,000 left of her £100,000 payout — so last year, her sister booked her into a 28-day rehab programme at a specialist centre.

‘It cost £7,000. Oscar’s dad loaned me the money, I’m paying him back. I was told when I got there I wasn’t addicted, so I wouldn’t be given a drug substitute: I was going cold turkey.

‘It was hell. I have never experienced pain, projectile sickness and diarrhoea like that. I was given one codeine every four days.

‘After 13 days I went home, trembling with the worst anxiety. Despite that, the cold turkey withdrawal worked. Luckily I have a supportive family — my mum, my two sisters and my son’s dad, who is now my best friend.

‘I would say to anyone, don’t take tramadol. It won’t take away the pain.’