Kiwis taking to 'hillbilly heroin'

HOOKED ON PAINKILLER: Freya Stephen spent a year on oxycodone while waiting for spinal surgery.
HOOKED ON PAINKILLER: Freya Stephen spent a year on oxycodone while waiting for spinal surgery.

New Zealanders are popping prescription pills with alarming regularity, and a painkiller known as "hillbilly heroin" is being handed out too easily.

Results from this year's Global Drug Survey, conducted in partnership with Fairfax Media, found that, of the 5731 New Zealand respondents, two-thirds had used prescription anti-pain or anti-anxiety drugs in the past year.

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The opioid oxycodone, known in the United States as "hillbilly heroin", is one of the most prescribed medicines for chronic severe pain in New Zealand.

It is also highly addictive. In the US, more people die each year from prescribed opioid overdoses than from heroin and cocaine combined.

The survey found a significant proportion of those using drugs such as oxycodone, ritalin, and benzodiazepine were doing so to get high or relax, with many people admitting to sourcing the drugs from a friend or a dealer.

Police confirmed the black market for prescription opiates was increasing, citing oxycodone, morphine and codeine as the main substances for sale.

When assessing prescription users overall, between 20 and 30 per cent exhibited two or more behavioural traits associated with drug dependence, such as taking more than prescribed, being unable to cut down and mixing other drugs.

A quarter of users wanted to use less, and many were keen for assistance in reducing their habit.

The National Association of Opioid Treatment Providers co-chairman Jeremy McMinn said the emergence of drugs such as those identified in the survey was a huge problem.

The results backed up the belief that oxycodone could be an emerging threat in New Zealand, and one for which authorities were not doing enough to prepare.

"The majority of those [drugs in the survey] can kill you, and these are easily available, but we would generally make it relatively hard for drugs that are of lower risk to be available."

The public had been lulled into a false sense of security about oxycodone, with its similar sound to codeine and assurances from drug manufacturers.

But it was likely that it was being handed out too easily and in too large amounts, while advice being given to GPs was inadequate.

"I can say that what we can see from these results and what we can predict from the experience in the US is that it's insufficient, it's an insufficient safeguard."

A "tenfold" increase in work towards an electronic prescription monitoring system was needed to properly control opiate drugs, McMinn said.

But Island Bay GP Richard Medlicott said the system around prescribing drugs such as oxycodone and benzodiazepine was robust, and most practices were aware that the drugs they handed out could be used inappropriately.

Capital & Coast DHB had reviewed its oxycodone prescription practices and had reduced the amount being given out, he said.

Providing a list of known drug seekers in an updated electronic form would be beneficial, as at the moment a paper list was sent out periodically and could become outdated.

It was also deemed less addictive than morphine and was cheaper for the taxpayer, he said.

Medsafe group manager Stewart Jessamine said all medicines had benefits and risks, but there was a legitimate role for opiates, including oxycodone, in the treatment and management of acute and chronic pain.


Oxycodone is one of Denise Stephen's most hated words.

In 2008 her daughter Freya, 19, died after becoming addicted to the drug, which she took for chronic back pain.

In her last year of high school, Freya spent more than a year on oxycodone after fracturing her spine while on holiday. She took it to deal with excruciating pain while waiting for surgery.

After an operation that involved inserting a rod into her back, she continued to use the drug and began obtaining it on the black market. Her addiction grew so bad that, unbeknown to her mother, she started injecting it.

"She must have hated that. She hated drug use, she abhorred it, and I think that's why she never told me.

"People say, 'You're a nurse, you should have known', but I didn't know, I didn't know I had to know, I didn't know this drug.

"I had to look it up. If it was called codeine, I would have known, but that is my shame . . . and I'll bear that forever."

Freya's battle with addiction ended after her mother had liver surgery and was discharged with liquid methadone. One night, not long after her 19th birthday, Freya took a swig and died in her sleep.

After the death of her "beautiful, bubbly girl", Stephen began looking into oxycodone and was shocked at what she discovered.

At the time, neither she nor Freya had received any information about oxycodone or its addictive properties. "It was only after that I started researching, and what I found horrified me, horrified me beyond belief." Hearing the results of the Global Drug Survey was saddening, but she hoped that every story regarding the risks of oxycodone helped raise the public's awareness about how dangerous the drug was. "Everyone knows P, knows ecstasy, but oxycodone - what's that?"

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The Dominion Post