Saturday, February 23, 2008

Australia's Massive 'Legal' Junkie Problem

For a couple of years in the early 1990s, I lived in and around Kings Cross. I met plenty of junkies.

Junkies, being drug addicts, know a lot about drugs. Some could rhapsodize about the comparative highs from legal and illegal drugs like wine connoisseurs. As the Cross junkies used to tell me, the best drugs of all are not the stuff you score on the street, it's the gear locked away in pharmacy safes, or in "the special drawers" behind the counter.

Heroin addicts don't shoot smack cut with shit because they like getting abscesses. They buy street smack because they can't get their hands on the legal stuff, unlike many doctors, lawyers and the occasional politician. Morphine. Pharmaceutical morphine is, or was, the prize beyond all prizes for the long-term junkheads of Kings Cross. At least four or five junkies I had taken the time to question told me their first opiate high came from a doctor. From a legal prescription.

The trick for those junkies was getting a doctor to prescribe "the diamond gear" for them. That is, pharmacuetical grade opiates. Self-mutilation in the pursuit of a doctor-delivered shot of morphine was not uncommon. A smashed tooth (from a screwdriver) could deliver a few days, or a few weeks (if the shattered gum was doctor-shopped) worth of prescription-only pills chock full of codeine, the little sister of morphine.

One old junkie, let's call him Dave, intervened to stop me getting mugged by three gutless fucks from the Northern Beaches in an alley next to the building where I lived back then. He filled a hypodermic with water from a puddle and then shouted "Oi! C.nts!" When one turned around, Dave squirted him with the brown water from the puddle. At 2am, in an alley sandwiched between tall buildings, it was dark enough for that water to look like blood, which is what Dave told them it was. "AIDS blood c.nts. Want a shot in a vein?"

After that, I always stopped to talk to Dave when I saw him stumbling along Darlinghurst Road. He never hit me up for money, but I probably gave him a few hundred dollars worth of cigarettes in the time I knew him. He gave me in return the wisdom of his years living rough and working harder in his low-income scams than most nine-to-fivers do in their offices.

It was Dave who gave me an education in street junkies versus pharmacy junkies. There might be thousands of smackies, he used to say, but there are hundreds of thousands of legal pill addicts. I found that hard to believe. Impossible, really.

But Dave was right of course. Australians throw down more prescription drugs than just about anyone else in the world, and the numbers of legal pill-popping junkies vastly outweigh those illegal drug-taking junkies your local tabloid columnist so often rants about.

Eight Nurofen-Plus washed down with a few glasses of red wine in half an hour is still drug abuse, even if you bought both drugs legally.

While the media and politicians roar and wail about the hundreds of thousands of Australians who smoke pot or neck an E or two most weekends, without dying, or overdosing, they remain, mostly, remarkably, quiet about the millions of Australians who abuse pharmacy-only and prescription pills on a regular basis and fill casualty wards and emergency rooms.

That's not even getting into the tens of thousands of elderly Australians who haul their old bodies from one doctor to another trading a few minutes of questions for a prescription for painkillers or sleeping tablets.

When the media does report on legal pill popping, the statistics, the levels of human wreckage, are absolutely staggering, and illegal drug abuse stats pales in comparison. Obviously, neither kinds of drug abuse are good, but that's not the point :

Paramedics are treating almost 8000 Melburnians a year for overdoses of prescription and over-the-counter drugs - 11 times the figure for heroin.

In the same period, almost 5100 Melburnians were treated for alcohol-related injuries and poisoning.

Medications are so addictive that 4400 Victorians sought treatment for addiction last year, Department of Human Services figures show.

Medicare's Prescription Shopping Program last year identified 52,925 Australians suspected of "doctor shopping" for more scripts than they needed.

Such medications kill up to three Australians a day - almost as many as die on roads.

Prescription medication is involved in up to 90 per cent of all drug deaths, says the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine's Prof Olaf Drummer.

Australian Medical Association state vice-president Dr Harry Hemley said dealing with prescription-drug addicts was the most serious problem facing doctors.

In the 12 months to last March -- the latest figures available -- paramedics treated almost 8000 people in Melbourne alone for overdoses of prescription and over-the-counter medications. Most victims were aged in their 30s -- and most were women.

Why is it that so many Australians want to get fucked up on pills and booze?

Is reality really that bad, or boring? Or do we simply love getting high?