Prescription painkillers are administered to patients with the intention of relief. But their lure as a cheap high and street value has resulted in hoarding and selling. Learn how this practice is contributing to Australia’s opioid crisis.
In hospitals across Australia, patients are routinely discharged with a supply of painkillers, most commonly opioids, to manage their pain. Even a simple tooth extraction may be followed with a prescription of oxycodone or fentanyl, the latter being an opioid approximately 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine.
Once a patient returns home, the contents of their prescriptions cease to be monitored. Some patients may be unaware of the highly addictive nature of the painkillers in their possession and may continue to take them long after their pain subsides. They may also continue to visit their doctor for more prescriptions and, if the doctor refuses, they may resort to ‘doctor shopping’, visiting different doctors in varied locations for multiple prescriptions. This practice perpetuates dependency with little monitoring of the dangers from long term use.
Other patients, aware of the street value of the drugs, may hoard them to sell on the black market. The purity and low cost of opioids makes prescription opioids a popular street drug of choice, but this increasingly popular and ever affordable high is wreaking havoc in the lives of many across the nation. On the street, doses cannot be monitored and the dangers of combining them with other substances cannot be conveyed. Prescription painkillers are powerful drugs that act as ticking time bombs when used recreationally.
Kids are Abusing Painkillers
Throughout the country it is all too common to find prescription painkillers sold as party drugs to Australian youths and the dangers should not be ignored. With any street drug, you can never be sure of what you are getting or its potency. Fentanyl, for example, may be added to the product by illicit drug makers and dealers to increase the high. It was a fentanyl overdose that claimed the life of the American musician Prince, in 2016.
Teenagers and young adults can also access opioids by taking them from family members or friends who were prescribed them. Once obtained, youths use them to get high, often unaware of their highly addictive nature or the dangers to their health. They frequently combine prescription painkillers with alcohol or illicit drugs, which can produce a toxic mix with unpredictable results.
These young people almost always overlook the dangers associated with wrongful use of prescribed opioids in pursuit of their high. Opioids slow down the messages travelling between the brain and the body. Abuse of these substances can cause confusion, difficulty in concentrating, hallucinations and sometimes, seizures. Long-term use can completely alter the parts of the brain that respond to stress and handle motivation. If you suspect someone you know is misusing opioids, look for these signs.
Signs of Opioid Misuse
- Severe mood swings, often from euphoria to depression
- Sudden scratching of the arms, legs or stomach
- Medications or money missing from the home
- Loss of interest in activities or friendships
- Constricted pupils, even in low light
- Lack of personal hygiene, bathing
- Constant runny nose
‘Fossil Pharming’ in Australia
The opioid crisis is even affecting the elderly by ‘fossil pharming’, the practice of on-selling their prescribed medication for a profit. This is especially prevalent in rural areas that lack accredited dispensers and chronic pain management clinics. The black market thrives in these conditions. A box of fentanyl patches can net upwards of $4,000, a tempting price for a pensioner on a fixed income. Some individuals make the choice to engage in this behaviour willingly while others are bullied into selling by drug dealers who approach and intimidate them outside of doctors’ surgeries and pharmacies. This provides a lucrative stream of unmonitored drugs entering the population.
In addition, elderly people that hoard their medication at home are often the easiest targets for drug-seeking family members. Unwittingly, their medicine cabinet can act as an impartial drug dealer to anyone with access. If you have an elderly family member, it is important to monitor their prescriptions carefully and responsibly.
Prescription Drug Abuse is a National Emergency
Prescription medication hoarding, borrowing and sharing (PMHBS) has become a global problem that is sweeping across Australia, especially in the regional areas. The Australian Medical Association (AMA) claims “Prescription drug abuse is a national emergency that is growing at an alarming rate.”
Pharmaceutical opioid deaths in Australia now exceed heroin overdoses and it is estimated that 26% of all drug-related deaths are related to opiates. In Sydney six people died of opioid overdoses in May 2016. An inquest into the deaths revealed that around 750,000 people in Australia are dependent on opioids.
As a result of overuse or inappropriate use of these medications, 800 Australians die per year from prescription drug overdoses. Medical experts have expressed concern in recent months that more Australians are becoming addicted to pharmaceutical opioid painkillers, mirroring the early stages of the opioid epidemic in America.
Doctor Prescribed Dependency
When a body experiences pain, it emits natural opioids called endorphins to quiet the neural pathways and lessen the pain. However, with chronic pain, the pathways become overloaded and aggravated, resulting in pain that cannot be soothed by the body alone. A trip to the doctor may yield a supply of opioids to relieve the discomfort. Unfortunately, without proper monitoring outside of the doctor’s office, intention of misuse can easily occur. A legitimate prescription for pain can does not safeguard you from becoming an addict. Anyone can become addicted to opioids, regardless of age, race or gender.
Opioids bind to receptors in the brain that regulate pain perception and pain-induced emotional responses. They also target the brain reward region and produce feelings of pleasure and well-being. Both the body and brain feel good and they want to keep it that way. It is this combination of pain relief and euphoria that conditions a patient to crave more. Overtime the body will develop a tolerance and physical dependency and higher doses will be required to produce the same effect. This progression often results in ‘accidental addicts’, people who become addicted without intending to or ever realizing it, until they try to stop.
Treating Prescription Painkiller Addiction at The Cabin
Withdrawal and recovery from prescription painkillers involves both the body and mind and can take months to be fully successful. Therefore, it should be monitored professionally to manage discomfort and provide your best chance at preventing relapse.
The Cabin Melbourne offers both residential rehab and outpatient treatment options to help you or your loved one regain control of your life. Take the following 2-minute quiz to see which service will help you live your life free from prescription painkillers.