Are alcohol, marijuana and prescription drugs our biggest demons?

A couple of people pass a joint.Alcohol is used and abused, marijuana is still deemed a “gateway drug” and everything from party pills to ice pipes is available illegally. Pharmaceuticals regularly are diverted to non-medical use, while a vast array of synthetic alternatives with unknown consequences are for sale online as reported by Sean Parnell.

The old adage of “everything in moderation” should have modern-day caveats: “well, not really everything” and “certainly don’t take everything at once”. Addiction and illicit use affect different sections of the community and, just as the drug of choice may change from year to year, so do the demographics. Thankfully, help is usually available.

About 115,000 Australians — or one in 200 — more than half of whom have more than one substance problem, seek treatment for alcohol and other drug problems each year.

A report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare this week shows alcohol (38 per cent) remains the main reason for treatment, although amphetamines jumped from 9 per cent to 20 per cent between 2010-11 and 2014-15.

The proportion of treatment episodes attributed to alcohol declined across the same period, from 47 per cent in 2010-11, while the surge in amphetamine issues included people smoking or inhaling the drugs. Amphetamines have replaced heroin as the third most common reason for treatment.

Odyssey House chief executive James Pitts warned last year that while the drug ice had made headlines, attracting government funding, heroin was responsible for long-term addictions and carried a greater risk of overdose.

More Australians are conscious of their alcohol consumption but a surprising number believe they can offset its impact through healthier behaviours.

Centre director Jan Copeland says cannabis use and addiction are serious issues in Australia. “Of course, the majority of experimental and occasional cannabis users don’t go on to become dependent. But the misconception cannabis is a harmless, non-addictive drug means many people who need help are not getting it.”

The centre recently established an online quit centre to help people give up cannabis.

Doctors and pharmacists have become more aware of prescription drug abuse and are best placed to prevent and treat such additions.

Jenny James, medical co-ordinator for the substance misuse program at the Sydney West Aboriginal Health Service, has urged GPs to look out for patients aggressively complaining about the need for a drug, asking for specific drugs by name or overreacting when asked about symptoms.

“Between 2001 and 2012 more than 800 Australians died from use of the prescription painkiller oxycodone, and more than half of these people died accidentally,” James says.

“Harms from prescription drugs, including deaths from overdose, continue to rise in Australia.

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