Australia has a problem with codeine—it's too easy to get. Australia is in a minority of countries to sell codeine medication over the counter, and now the government is concerned this might be causing problems.
They've commissioned a serious review into over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers, to decide whether or not codeine painkillers should be scheduled up to prescription-only.
The Pharmacy Guild of Australia, which is a powerful pharma lobby group, naturally think that's a bad idea. In fact, they've called rescheduling "a blunt instrument that will not address issues of misuse and abuse." They also claim Australia shouldn't reschedule codeine, but instead keep track of who's buying it.
So, Australia has two possible solutions to a big problem. One comes from a lobby group, and the other comes from the government. VICE sat down with three young people who these changes will most affect. Each has abused pharmaceutical opiates, so we talked about their addictions, and what they believe might be the most effective remedy.
A 24-year-old user from the Gold Coast, Hannah is currently using a cold water extraction method to consume 160 tablets of codeine painkillers every week.
VICE: Hi Hannah, can you tell me about taking codeine in liquid form?
Hannah: I used to just take [the tablets] but then I learned a way to extract. I find that it has changed how I use the drug now though, like after you extract the paracetamol and you just have the codeine. That's like 40 pills' worth there. You have to have it all at once because I don't think it keeps. It fucks you up pretty nicely, but you can't go to work or do much on that like you can with the tablets.
So you just drink it all in one sitting?
Pretty much. The tablets used to get me through work or just pick me up at the end of a shit day, but now I mostly extract. It isn't cheap anymore though and I don't know if it's worth it to be honest, the high is different. I might go back to the pills.
How often would you use the drug now? Do you ever think about quitting?
I used to be able to make a 40 pack of pills last a couple of weeks, but lately I can get through that in one night if I feel like I need it. I tried to quit or cut down a few times. It seemed pretty easy actually until you treat yourself after a few weeks, and then you realise it's the happiest you've been in ages and you want to keep that feeling around.
What could Australia do to help prevent people abusing pharmaceutical opiates?
That MedsASSIST thing stopped me from getting more the other day actually. The idea is that [pharmacies] can track how much I buy, so one day I go in and they know I'm an addict and like call the police or my parents or something. It's enough to make me stay away from it. But they would have to go hard out with it, if some pharmacies had it and some didn't I would just jump around stores until I found a good pattern.
Also from the Gold Coast, Tyler has struggled with addiction to Oxycodone and other prescription drugs.
Hi Tyler, how did you first find out about Oxy?
I always knew it was in my mum's cabinet from an old surgery she'd had. She said she couldn't take them because they got caught in her throat. I didn't really think about it as a drug like that until I heard friends talking and saw some shit on Tumblr.
So most of the drugs you got were from your parents' own prescriptions?
At first, yeah. I just started taking a few tablets at a time from the bottle when I felt low, usually just at home alone. Eventually, I took the whole bottle out of the cabinet and even sold a few to some guys I know.
That was pretty much the lowest point... going over to have sex with this girl so I could steal her parents' medication
Did you make much off them?
Not really I only sold about 8 for $15 each, I didn't want to sell too many.
Where did you go to get more after you finished your mum's bottle?
Well it got pretty shitty after that. Mum's bottle of Oxy was in 60mg tabs and by the time I got to it there were still about 80-something pills left. So I enjoyed a good month of being heavily medicated. After it was all gone I turned the cabinet upside down looking for anything else like it. I only found like 3 ancient Tramadol pills. Then I just started asking people.
Asking people for more Oxy?
Yeah, I went to the guys I sold to first. You know how it works with drugs everyone knows someone that knows someone. Eventually I got a few sheets of tablets, but they were only like 10mg each and cost a shit load.
I kind of gave up trying to find a dealer and considered like genuinely injuring myself bad enough to get a proper prescription, jumping off a ledge and breaking my wrist or something small like that. It was so fucking dumb.
Did you end up going through with it?
No. I pussied out.
So did you ever get your hands on more after that or was that it?
I did find a girl on Tinder whose parents had a prescription. That was pretty much the lowest point; just going over to have sex with this girl so I could steal her parents' medication. I stayed away from anything prescription after she found out I had basically eaten all her parents' pain meds, which they genuinely needed.
What could Australia do to help prevent people abusing pharmaceutical opiates?
Educate kids I reckon. I didn't know medicine like that could be such an addictive drug. It's like they just think telling kids in school that drugs will fuck up your life so don't even touch them once will prevent all addictions. Tell them why it makes you feel so good but why that isn't worth it.
Stephen is a young trade apprentice from Brisbane who developed an addiction to panadeine after a work-related injury.
How did you first find out about using Panadeine Forte in a recreational sense?
My back was all twisted from doing stupid shit at work, so the doctor wrote me out a prescription to help with the pain. I put off the appointment for ages just because I was lazy. After finally getting the meds my back was killing me so I ignored the dosage guide on the box and just ate about six at once.
What was that like? Did you experience a proper high?
Yeah I did. I smoke the odd cone occasionally but I've never really dabbled in anything else. When the high from the panadeine hit me though it was amazing. I was with this girl I was seeing back then and I gave her some too after I discovered what it was like. She loved it. It just made the whole day amazing, nothing was stressing me out or weighing on my mind.
Did you start to abuse your medication after that?
Immediately. Whenever I had actual pain I would have about six or seven pills, so I could kind of kid myself into thinking I wasn't really abusing those meds. But yeah, I obviously was then and still am.
How many prescriptions have you had now? Isn't your doctor suspicious?
I have no idea how many I have had written out. The first time I had panadeine was about seven months ago. My doctor stopped writing me scripts about three months ago and told me that he was worried I was developing a dependency. They said I should just use the over-the-counter painkillers now. They are pretty shit, I threw away most of the pack I bought and started doctor shopping.
So you found a GP that will write you scripts now?
Yeah, it took a few goes and a lot of suss looks from some doctors but the guy I am seeing now has written me out a script each time I've seen him.
Are they hard to convince?
Some are, some aren't. The doctor I am seeing now just has to hear a few sentences about how you are following the physio's orders and doing all your stretches but you just need some pain relief to get to sleep or something like that.
What do you think would be a good way for Australia to combat pharmaceutical opiate addiction?
Well if they stop writing me prescriptions I will probably stop. I can't just ask my weed dealer for this shit and even if he had it it would probably cost more than I would really pay for it. Most doctors do their job and refer me to a physio or alternative medicine. I feel like the ones that write the scripts know what they are doing is a little dodgy.