Life Wellbeing This drug problem is ‘worse than ice’
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This drug problem is ‘worse than ice’

Drug use rose at the height of coronavirus pandemic across Australia.
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Abuse of legal pills has caused a “national emergency” more dangerous than the spread of illicit drugs like crystal meth, an expert has warned.

Painkillers and tranquillisers are being overused, resulting in estimated growing rates of silent addiction and accidental death.

“This is a quiet issue you might say, but it’s a bigger issue even than ice,” ScriptWise spokesman Dr Steve Wilson told the ABC.

“It really is, as far as I’m concerned, a national and state-by-state and territory emergency.”

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Opioid painkillers, made from opium poppies like this, are one half of the problem. Photo: Getty

The two drugs fuelling the problem are minor tranquillisers (benzodiazepines) and painkillers (opioids). Last year, doctors wrote an estimated 15 million prescriptions for opioids and 10 million for ‘benzos’. Australia has an estimated population of 23.9 million.

Patients can “quite easily” fall into dependency on these drugs without realising, an expert told The New Daily.

Both types of drugs are addicting — and killing — a growing number of Australians, addiction medicine specialist Dr Philip Crowley said.

“It’s almost creeping up on us, really.

“People perceive that these things are safe because they’re prescribed by a doctor and given out by a pharmacist. People don’t necessarily have a sense of the risks of dependence and the overdose rates.”

In 2008 alone, there were 500 accidental overdoses attributed to opioids, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre reported.

Taken together, especially with alcohol, these legal drugs become especially lethal.

“It’s a combination of those two medications that are usually what leads to what is called an accidental overdose,” ScriptWise CEO Bee Mohamed told The New Daily.

Those most at risk

Many addicts 'doctor shop' for multiple prescriptions. Photo: Getty
Many addicts ‘doctor shop’ for multiple prescriptions. Photo: Getty

Generally, those who fall into dependency do so after suffering some kind of disease or injury, ScriptWise claimed.

“It’s almost always in the post-hospitalisation. There’s really nothing there to educate them about how they can manage the pain and also the medications during that journey of recovery,” ScriptWise’s Ms Mohamed said.

A month or longer on the pills reportedly increases the risk of abuse.

“The long term use of these medications, especially if you are taking them for more than four weeks, that has a tendency to lead to the long road of dependency,” Ms Mohamed said.

Men are almost three times as likely to die as a result of taking opioid medication, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre found.

Those who abuse the pills without any medical purpose are likely to be younger — between 20 and 29 years, ScriptWise estimated based on health data.

How to detect an addiction

Before you accept a prescription, ask your doctor for more information, such as the side effects. Photo: Shutterstock
Before you accept a prescription, ask your doctor for more information, such as the side effects. Photo: Shutterstock

ScriptWise has circulated a guide to identifying dependence on prescription pills.

Some of the warning signs reportedly include:

• increased usage of the pills due to tolerance build up;
• changes in personality, energy and mood;
• mental blackouts, forgetfulness and lost ability to concentrate;
• withdrawal from interaction with family, friends and other social interactions;
• continued use after the medical condition has improved;
• large amounts of time obtaining prescriptions, such as driving great distances and visiting multiple doctors;
• diminished personal hygiene;
• changed sleeping and eating habits;
• a constant cough, runny nose and/or red, glazed eyes;
• neglected responsibilities, such as sick days at work; and
• defensiveness.

How to prevent the problem

ScriptWise’s spokesperson encouraged patients to question their doctor further if an opioid or benzodiazepine prescription is recommended.

“We want to improve patients’ health literacy around what medications they are actually taking and what are the side effects,” Ms Mohamed said.

“It needs to come as much from the patient as it does from the general practitioners.”

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