Australia’s addiction to prescription meds is nearing crisis point

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Rorke’s addiction to prescription medication cost him his job, his relationship, his character and very nearly his life. As extreme as his story is, experts say it’s worryingly common.

When Rorke was 25 a skiing accident changed his life.

Coming off a jump, his lower body planted in the snow but the momentum hurled his upper body forward. The force tore right through his knee. As he remembers it, “everything exploded.”

During his recovery, Rorke was prescribed a cocktail of drugs for pain management. As it turned out, it was this cocktail – not extreme sport – that nearly killed him.

“If I'd had knowledge of the dangers or just how addictive those drugs are, I would definitely never have taken them. I became like a monster.”

drug deaths
One in 10 Australians prescribed opioids become addicted.
Pennington Institute

Rorke was prescribed two of the most addictive types of pharmaceuticals: benzodiazepines and opioids. ‘Benzos’ are tranquilisers usually prescribed for anxiety or insomnia, and include Valium and Xanax. Opioids are painkillers like oxycodone (Endone, OxyNorms), morphine and codeine.  At his most abusive stage, Rorke was taking benzos in addition to a box of OxyNorms every day.

How Rorke was able to acquire this oversupply of drugs was simple. When he burned through one doctor’s prescription, he would visit another doctor and get them to write another script – a practice so common it’s known as ‘doctor shopping’.

“I went back for refills even though I wasn't in pain.”

Rorke was not a recreational drug user – he wasn’t even much of a drinker. So to cast him off as a young person behaving recklessly would be misinterpreting his story. The reality is, one in 10 Australians prescribed opioids become addicted. 

drug deaths
Overdoses from benzos and opioid painkillers are now responsible for almost three times more deaths than heroin and meth/amphetamines combined.
Pennington Institute

Doctors now write around 14 million prescriptions for opioid-based painkillers each year. That’s quadruple the 2007 figure. GP and Addiction Specialist, Dr Hester Wilson, thinks Australia’s relationship with prescription drugs is heading towards a crisis.

“We have a system set up where it is cheaper and quicker and easier for me to write a script for opioids than it is to support my patients to go to hydrotherapy, physiotherapy, exercise physiologists. It's a broken system that drives the prescribing.”

In July, after years of lobbying by organisations like Script Wise – whose founding patron is Kim Ledger, the father of Heath Ledger, who died from accidentally mixing prescription meds with sleeping tablets – the federal government announced funding for a real-time monitoring system to make it harder for doctor shoppers to score meds.

But Dr Wilson thinks, “real time prescribing is only part of the solution. We need more support. We need more training for doctors.”

Hear more from Rorke, his mother, Dr Wilson and Kim Ledger in the video below: 

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