Use and Misuse of Prescription Drugs among Police Detainees

By Patterson, Eileen; Sullivan, Tom et al. | Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, April 2018 | Go to article overview

Use and Misuse of Prescription Drugs among Police Detainees


Patterson, Eileen, Sullivan, Tom, Ticehurst, Andrew, Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice


The non-medical use of prescription drugs is a growing problem in Australia and overseas. In this report, non-medical prescription drug use refers to the consumption of these drugs without a valid prescription. In the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (AIHW 2016), five percent of Australians aged 14 years or older reported non-medical use of prescription or other pharmaceutical drugs in the previous 12 months. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection and various police jurisdictions have also documented an overall upward trend in pharmaceutical detections and seizures, which include prescription and over-thecounter drugs (ACIC 2016; Nicholas, Lee & Roche 2011). Similarly, increases in the non-medical use of prescription drugs have been reported in the US, Canada and European Union countries (Blanco et al. 2007; European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction 2016; Fischer & Argento 2012). The rising non-medical use of prescription drugs contrasts with the relatively stable proportion of Australians reporting recent illicit use of drugs excluding pharmaceuticals since 2004 (AIHW 2016).

When used appropriately, prescription drugs improve the health and quality of life of many people. However, evidence suggests individuals can obtain these drugs without prescriptions, acquiring them through means such as 'doctor shopping' or by feigning or exaggerating symptoms; evidence also suggests that people sell prescription drugs or give them away (AIHW 2014; McGregor, Gately & Fleming 2011; Ng & Macgregor 2012). Prescription drugs commonly used non-medically in Australia include benzodiazepines and opioids such as buprenorphine, morphine, methadone and oxycodone (Ng & Macgregor 2012).

The non-medical use of prescription drugs is concerning because of its association with health issues such as increasing levels of overdoses, problems related to how the drugs are administered, and rising demand for treatment services (Nicholas, Lee & Roche 2011). Australian research has also associated non-medical prescription drug use with illicit drug offences (McGregor, Gately & Fleming 2011) and the media has drawn attention to people under the influence of prescription drugs who have committed violent crimes (Loughnan 2016). Research in the United States suggests the abuse of prescription opioids may also serve as a pathway to heroin use (Siegal et al. 2003), although evidence of this in Australia is limited to an exploratory case study (Dertadian & Maher 2013).

Nicholas, Lee and Roche (2011) identified various factors that may be causing or contributing to the rapid increase in the use of prescription and over-the-counter drugs in Australia and affecting patterns of non-medical use. One factor is the increase in the range of pharmaceutical opioids available for prescription in Australia, especially slow-release formulations. Barriers to accessing specialist pain management services and drug treatment services, such as long waiting times, may also have contributed to the rise in prescription drug use. Demographic factors, specifically the ageing Australian population, may be another explanation. An increase in the prevalence of conditions such as chronic pain, associated with an ageing population, may increase the demand for prescription medications (Nicholas, Lee & Roche 2011).

Globally, data from different sources suggest there may have been a 'paradigm shift' (Fischer & Rehm 2007: 499) from heroin to a variety of prescription opioids. Researchers have also linked the rise in non-medical opioid use to relatively easy access to the drugs via the internet (Compton & Volkow 2006). People may purchase prescription drugs this way due to the anonymity afforded to them, the ability to buy without a prescription and the lower cost (ACIC 2016). In response to the increasing supply of pharmaceuticals and the harms associated with non-medical use in Australia, the National Pharmaceutical Drug Misuse Framework for Action (2012-2015) was developed to reduce inappropriate use of prescription and other pharmaceutical drugs. …

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