The misuse of pharmaceutical drugs is a major public health issue in Australia, as highlighted by parliamentary, government and coroner reports. The NSW Coroner's Court is currently examining this issue as part of an inquest into the unrelated opioid overdose deaths of six people in 2016. There are fears that Australia could be heading down the same path as the United States, where prescription drug misuse has been described as an epidemic.
Over the past decade in Australia there has been an increase in the rate of pharmaceutical drug misuse and a marked rise in overdose deaths involving these drugs. In 2012, a national framework of action was developed to address the problem. One of the framework’s key priorities – a national real-time prescription monitoring program – has not yet eventuated. Tasmania has had such a system since 2012 while Victoria and the ACT are currently introducing State-based systems.
Both Commonwealth and State legislation regulates the supply of pharmaceutical drugs. A recent change at the Commonwealth level was the rescheduling of commonly used painkillers containing codeine so that they can now only be obtained by prescription. The Commonwealth Therapeutic Goods Administration is also currently consulting on a range of regulatory options for dealing with the misuse of strong opioids. Meanwhile, the medical profession has developed new guidelines in relation to drugs of dependence.
The NSW Government has undertaken a range of actions including:
- programs to educate prescribers;
- monitoring supplies of Schedule 8 drugs to pharmacies;
- working towards a national prescription monitoring program;
- releasing a pain management strategy;
- considering the outcomes of take-home Naloxone trials; and
- increasing access to the Opioid Treatment Program.
Other policy measures that could be adopted in NSW are those recommended in a 2014 NSW Deputy State Coroner’s report and a 2018 Victorian Parliamentary Committee report. US policy responses are also worth considering. The US programs that allow for the collection of unused prescription drugs may be of particular interest in light of the evidence that family and friends are a significant source for those who misuse pharmaceutical drugs.