26 Oct 2012

'Hillbilly heroin' takes toll in Australia

8:53 pm on 26 October 2012

There are fears Australia is on the cusp of a deadly drug epidemic that is driving a record number of overdoses.

The painkiller oxycodone, also known as oxycontin or more colloquially as "hillbilly heroin", has overtaken heroin as the drug of choice among injecting users, but the bulk of its victims are middle-aged pain sufferers, the ABC reports.

The drug was once used specifically for cancer patients, but several years ago it began being regularly prescribed in Australia to anyone suffering chronic pain and its use soared.

While prescription rates for morphine dropped, oxycodone's rose 152% in six years.

Over an eight-year period, 465 Australians have died - the most common victim being a middle-aged person accidentally overdosing.

New Zealand warning

In New Zealand, Alistair Dunn of the Northland health addiction service last year told Radio New Zealand that the use of oxycodone in this country should be curbed.

The drug was prescribed for 1000 people when it was first available on this side of the Tasman in 2006, and that increased to 21,000 in 2009.

But Dr Dunn said oxycodone is no more effective in treating pain than morphine and is significantly more expensive.

In 2010, $3 million was spent on morphine, and $5 million on oxycodone, which is fully subsidised by the Government.

Addictive nature

In Australia, the ABC reports Trevor Gerrand's doctor prescribed MS Contin, a brand of oxycodone for pain from a chronic neck injury, but the drug left him in a haze.

After three years Mr Gerrand managed to cut his use in half and then after some months eliminate it completely, but he still worries about the addictive nature of oxycodone.

"It's evil, I call it that," he says. "It's a strong word, but I would call it that. It's that dangerous. It can kill you, you take too much it can kill you.

"You can get hooked on it very easily like you can any other illicit substance."

There is an active black market and the drug is commonly abused by crushing the tablets and injecting them.

Jeremy Hayllar, who works in one of Queensland Health's largest rehabilitation clinics, says oxy often reaches the black market by sellers who go "doctor-shopping".

He says many people do not realise it is one and a half times stronger than heroin and that its effects are exacerbated by other depressants like alcohol and Valium.