Nearly 150 opioid drug users - including 64 aged over 45 - addicted to substances such as morphine and methadone are enrolled in treatment programmes in the Bay of Plenty health area, new figures reveal.
Information released to the Bay of Plenty Times shows about 5000 people across New Zealand were undergoing opioid substitution treatment (OST) in December, 147 of whom were registered in the Bay of Plenty District Health Board region.
OST, which often involves prescribing the Class B drug methadone, aims to "reduce the risk of drug-related harm" to addicts and the community.
Hester Hattingh, who co-ordinates the local DHB mental health and addiction service for adults, said that besides methadone treatment patients also engaged in counselling, special-case management and life skills development. Suboxone, an alternative opiate-substitute to methadone, was also prescribed.
Court cases involving methadone have made headlines. In April Claudine Michelle Herewini, 42, was charged with manslaughter by administering methadone after her 9-year-old son Antony Christensen died of an alleged overdose.
Herewini, whose son was found dead in his bed at Raetihi, will re-appear in court on June 24.
Two weeks earlier Wanganui man Matthew Shane Johns, 36, whose girlfriend died after he helped her shoot up methadone, was sentenced to two years and seven months' jail for manslaughter. Both were experienced methadone users.
Mrs Hattingh said patients were strictly monitored. "Clients may be required to consume their medication at the pharmacy several times a week, and in some instances daily. If clients wish to travel they need to liaise with their clinician to arrange appropriate and safe dispensing of their medication at their destination."
In Tauranga addict Peter William Houghton was sentenced to two years' jail in May last year for robbing a pharmacy and cultivating cannabis. The Otumoetai knifehand was masked and carried a sign outlining his drug demands when he went to Bureta pharmacy in January 2012.
It read: "Don't hit the alarm and put all your benzos, opiates and liquid sleepers in the bag."
Police later discovered a note drafted by Houghton intended for his doctor, which said he would "rob a chemist or worse" if he did not get his prescription changed. At his sentencing, Houghton's lawyer said his client had since weaned himself off the methadone programme he had been on for 15 years.
The Health Ministry warns that stopping use of opioid drugs is not the general goal of the treatment programme. "For some clients, it will be appropriate to attempt a supervised reduction and withdrawal of opioid drugs," director of mental health chief adviser Dr John Crawshaw said. "Other clients may receive OST for the rest of their lives ... at a level which allows them to function normally."