Thousands on methadone treatment
Thousands of New Zealanders are receiving methadone treatment to wean them off heavier drugs, with many patients addicted to painkillers rather than illicit drugs such as heroin.
Since 2007 the number of patients treated at methadone clinics has increased 19 per cent, to nearly 5000, although experts say this is in large part due to more funding for courses of the synthetic drug.
However, where in the past patients were overwhelmingly treated for addiction to heroin, the battle now was often fought against prescription drugs such as oxycodone, which is now the No 1 prescribed medication for chronic severe pain in New Zealand.
Introduced to in New Zealand in 2005, it was intended for moderate-to-severe pain relief when a patient could not tolerate morphine.
Oxycodone is twice as potent as morphine, twice as expensive, and has a greater abuse potential with recreational drug users, according to The Best Practice Advocacy Centre New Zealand. It is estimated that between 3 per cent and 11 per cent of users in New Zealand are addicted to the drug.
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Professor Doug Sellman, of the National Addiction Centre, said the shifting battle lines reflected what drugs were widely available.
"New Zealand has had little heroin since the end of the '70s, so opioid availability has been largely prescription-drug fuelled and homebake from precursor pharmaceuticals," he said.
Sellman said there had also been a significant increase in prescriptions for oxycodone in recent years, in line with overseas trends.
Between 2007 and 2011, the number of prescriptions for oxycodone increased 254 per cent, compared with a 37 per cent increase for morphine.
National Association of Opioid Treatment Providers Co-chair Dr Jeremy McMinn said that while prescription drug abuse was on the rise, heroin still posed the greatest danger.
"The harm associated with prescription-drug addiction is certainly not greater than the harms associated with heroin addiction," he said.
"With heroin, you are more likely to overdose, contract HIV and hepatitis viruses, more likely to commit crime, more likely to suffer other untreated health conditions."
McMinn said abuse and dependence on prescription drugs throughout the developed world now outweighed abuse and dependence on heroin.
He attributed the greater number of people on the methadone programme to greater funding.