Oxycodone: The factors behind Australians’ increasing use of ‘hillbilly heroin’

Over the past 10 years, the number of prescriptions for pharmaceutical opioids in Australia has soared, and prescriptions for one drug in particular, oxycodone, have shown a significant increase. Both are trends that have the nation’s medical community very concerned.

“There is a serious problem,” Professor Jake Najman, the director of Queensland Alcohol and Drug Research and Education Centre said. “The amount of prescribing of opioids [in Australia] has massively increased, and a lot of that is being diverted from medication use to illicit use.”

The rise of oxycodone

Oxycodone, dubbed ‘hillbilly heroin’, is a morphine-based painkiller typically prescribed to manage acute, chronic and cancer-related pain.

Oxycodone prescriptions increased in Australia by more than 152 per cent, from 35.3 to 89.2 per 1,000 population, between 2002-03 and 2007-08. Another study which measured the dispensed use of the drug from 2002-2009 revealed a 180 per cent increase.

It is thought the sharp increase in oxycodone prescriptions may be due to the growing demand for the drug from three core over-lapping groups: patients with cancer pain; patients with chronic pain, such as back pain; and those who use these drugs in an ‘extra-medical’ way, which may involve crushing and snorting or injecting the tablets.

In a study of 204 people who were using drug treatment services across Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania in 2013, half said they frequently used oxycodone, with 86 per cent saying their prescription opioid use had become a problem. When asked about the context in which they had first used a prescription opiate, more than 80 per cent said they had initially used the medications for pain relief.

Reasons for rise: ageing

The Australian population is ageing, so researchers believe the increase in prescriptions for oxycodone may be related to treatment of pain among older Australians, with numbers of prescriptions highest among this group. Professor Louisa Degenhardt from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) believes there is no indication the magnitude of this issue will go down in coming years.

“Pain is only going to become more and more common among the Australian population. But opioids are not the only strategy, and are not the necessarily the first strategy, for management of chronic pain,” Professor Degenhardt said.

Reasons for rise: hillbilly heroin

The group of oxycodone users who use the drug ‘extra-medically’ has been one of the most concerning but hardest to measure of the user groups over the past decade.

Oxycodone has become one of the most widely-abused prescription opioids, with the tablets able to be crushed and snorted or injected. Tablets are also dealt and sold-on, with the drug trading illegally for up to $50 per tablet, meaning one packet could be worth approximately $1,000.

The number of Australians injecting oxycodone has increased significantly since 2005. In findings presented by NDARC last year from the Illicit Drug Reporting System – a national illicit drug monitoring system which involves interviews with people who inject drugs regularly, along with analysis and examination of data sources related to illicit drugs – approximately one third of all participants reported they injected oxycodone in 2013.

Curbing the increase

A number of recent medical and policy changes have been introduced aiming to combat the soaring increase in the use and distribution of oxycodone and other prescription opioids in Australia.

Read More By Gina McKeon

Drug Policy & Research

Drug policy and research on Oxycodone, other drugs and addiction will be addressed at the Australian and New Zealand Addiction 2015 Conference hosted by the Australian and New Zealand Mental Health Association.

The Conference is for Addiction treatment professionals, Drug and Alcohol Workers, Mental Health professionals, Health-care Clinicians, Researchers and Academics.

Addiction 2015 will be held on the 5-6 March 2015 at Outriggers Gold Coast. The Call for Abstracts for presentations will close on 21 November 2014.

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For more information:
Web: www.addictionaustralia.org.au
E
mail: secretariat@addictionuaustralia.org.au 

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