Fentanyl patches being stolen from elderly

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The Feed visited Coonamble in regional NSW to hear from residents about the community’s battle with prescription drug abuse.

A report commissioned by Coonamble Shire Council has found that theft of the prescription drug fentanyl is a serious problem in the small farming town 500kms north-west of Sydney.

People are using a variety of methods to obtain the prescription painkiller, including ‘doctor shopping’ and breaking into the homes of elderly residents who have a fentanyl prescription.  

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid roughly 100 times more potent than morphine. The drug was first prescribed in Australia the 1990s for chronic cancer pain, and in 2006 fentanyl patches were listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme for chronic pain management. Prescription rates have increased significantly in the past two decades.

Paul Wheelhouse told The Feed about a break-and-enter attempt at his aunt’s house, where the intruder was attempting to steal fentanyl patches:

“Me [sic] aunty was pretty upset, you know. Someone's been in her house, going through everything.”

It was the third time Paul Wheelhouse’s aunt’s house had been broken into.   

Daniel (not his real name) grew up in Coonamble surrounded by alcohol abuse, violence and drugs. He started drug abusing at 12 and began abusing fentanyl patches after he lost a family member. He says fentanyl is extremely addictive and very destructive: 

“When I was on Fentanyl, I don't think there would be something I wouldn't do for it.

When I was on Fentanyl, I don't think there would be something I wouldn't do for it.

“It's like a physical and mental thing like, like with your body it takes the pains away and in your mind it takes all the problems away. But then later on down the track, when you see with a clear mind you just created more problems.”

Drug abusers have various ways of preparing fentanyl patches. One method is to place the patch on a spoon, add vinegar, heat it from beneath with the flame of a cigarette lighter, then extract the liquid into a syringe for intravenous injection.

The 'Safe Coonamble' report made a number of recommendations including a system where people would be required to attend a pharmacy to have their patch removed and a new one applied. Increasing mental health and drug and alcohol workers was also recommended.

Report author, Professor Kim Usher, says the misuse of pharmaceutical painkillers is not contained to Coonamble - the issue affects rural and regional communities across Australia. She went on to say, “We need to look at the disadvantage in those communities. It's about looking for opportunities for employment, for training, for development – it's got to be a whole-of-community approach.”