We are constantly hearing about people who have lost their lives or committed heinous crimes due to their battle with methamphetamine addiction.
Indeed, Australia’s ‘ice epidemic’ has dominated the media for many months, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott calling it a ‘national menace.’
With all the focus on ice, prescription drug abuse often slips under the radar. But Australian Medical Association (AMA) spokesperson Dr Steve Wilson says that prescription drugs kill more people than methamphetamine each year – and the figures are growing.
According to Dr Wilson, drugs such as ice feature more heavily in the media because they are perceived as being more ‘devastating’ and ‘catastrophic’, and incidents involving such drugs involve multiple emergency personnel such as police, paramedics and doctors.
But statistics indicate that Australians are far more likely to abuse prescription drugs than methamphetamines, and that those aged in their 20s are the most likely to do so – with 10.9% reporting using pharmaceutical drugs for non-medical purposes.
Western Australia leads the country in prescription drug abuse, with residents 5.6% more likely to abuse medications compared to other states and territories.
The Acceptance of Prescription Drug Abuse
Prescription drug abuse is often seen as more acceptable than the low-level use of illicit drugs. This is not only because prescription drugs are legal, but abusers are often prescribed the drugs by doctors rather than having to seek them on the black market.
In many cases, prescription drug abusers go ‘doctor shopping’ – seeking prescriptions from multiple doctors, many of whom are only too happy to put pen to paper.
Recent years have seen an explosion in the number of prescriptions for addictive and dangerous drugs, including benzodiazepines, which are minor tranquilisers used to relieve stress and anxiety and to help people sleep. Approximately 1 in 50 Australians are believed to use benzodiazepines on a regular basis, with many taking it for longer than 6 months – despite the fact that long term use can result in breathing problems, unconsciousness, coma and even death.
The problem can be compounded when users mix prescription medication with illicit drugs or alcohol – sometimes with tragic consequences.
Concerned family members are often helpless to stop abusers, with one mother describing how she tried to tell Medicare and police about her son’s addiction – even giving them copies of the prescriptions. But despite her best efforts, nothing was done and her son ended up deceased.
How Can We Address the Issue?
Thankfully, action is being taken to combat the problems associated with prescription drug abuse.
ScriptWise is an organisation which aims to raise awareness about the misuse of prescription medication. It is launching a national educational campaign next week to educate Australians about the dangers, with Kim Ledger – father of the late Heath Ledger – being the official patron of the organisation.
Heath Ledger died in 2008 after accidently overdosing on a combination of six prescription drugs. It is believed that he suffered from insomnia and was attempting to self-medicate. A toxicology report found oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine in his system.
An initiative which the government hopes will address the issue of ‘doctor shopping’ is the rollout of an Electronic Recording and Reporting of Controlled Drugs System (ERRCD).
The system aims to ‘develop a nationally consistent system to collect and report data relating to dispensing controlled drugs’ by requiring doctors and other health professionals to record all prescriptions of controlled drugs in an electronic register.
This will allow medical professionals to quickly check whether a patient has already been prescribed a controlled substance, and thereby prevent ‘doctor shopping.’
Despite the fact that the ERRCD was approved by the Federal Government in 2012, the rollout has been painstakingly slow, with only Tasmania adopting it so far.
While the ERRCD signifies a positive step forward, doctors are concerned by the fact that it will only register Schedule 8 drugs, which are drugs deemed to be highly addictive, and that potentially dangerous drugs such as benzodiazepines and anti-psychotics will not appear on the records.