'Hillbilly heroin' on black market

By Cassandra Mason -
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Mt Maunganui GP Tony Farrell
Mt Maunganui GP Tony Farrell

A powerful painkiller twice as potent as morphine has made its way on to the By of Plenty black market thanks to "easy access" , a local addiction counsellor warns.

Oxycodone, also known as "hillbilly heroin", is a synthetic opiate often prescribed for pain relief associated with fractures, arthritis and cancer.

It is as addictive as morphine, twice as potent and more expensive.

Thousands of prescriptions are being doled out to Bay patients each year.

The drug is now the number one cause of overdose in the United States, ahead of heroin and cocaine.

According to the Best Practice Journal, the use of oxycodone in New Zealand increased by 249 per cent between 2008-2012. It has been subsidised by Pharmac since 2005. Figures released by the Ministry of Health show 13,964 prescriptions were written in the Bay of Plenty for oxycodone in the 2013 financial year, down from 14,606 the previous year.

Tauranga Hanmer Clinic counsellor Jill Knowler said the painkiller was "highly addictive".

"From what clients have told me, it's not hard to access and doctors are sometimes not doing followups and background for addiction. [They're] just given repeats."

The drug was also available on the black market.

"Some of them are buying it off people who are getting easy access.

"I had a client who was getting it couriered up here because she had a contact in Otago who was getting it easily off their GP."

Hawke's Bay physician and chair of the pharmacy and therapeutics committee Dr James Curtis said while national prescription rates had slowed in the last year, the drug was still circulating on the black market.

"More oxycodone is diverted to the illicit market than other opiates. I don't think all people who are addicted to it started on it legitimately, some people have just sourced it from their local [dealer]."

Mount Maunganui GP Tony Farrell said oxycodone had initially been marketed as a painkiller for a wide range of ailments, including arthritis. There had been an initial increase in prescriptions but concerns about patients getting addicted emerged and GPs were advised to be cautious when prescribing the drug.

Although the number of prescriptions had fallen, it remained a concern, Dr Farrell said.

Executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation Ross Bell said there were two pathways Kiwis developed a dependency on the drug.

"One would be people who are in genuine pain, being prescribed this pain relief and maybe the doctors aren't managing the pain as best they could and find it easier to just keep writing out the script.

"Or they do find their way on to the black market, whether that's through 'doctor shopping' or robberies from chemists."

A spike in prescription rates since 2008 could also relate to changes in subsidies, making oxycodone an economic "drug of choice".

However, more education with doctors had seen a recent drop in the volume of prescriptions being written.

"The Ministry of Health does a programme called 'Medicines Control' which is meant to keep track of whether there are doctors who are wildly prescribing a range of medicines ... so there might be a bit more awareness among doctors."

In April 2012, Tauranga mother and son, Lisa Burroughs-Mather and her son Nikolai Burroughs, who were both addicted oxycodone, were sentenced for robbing the Maungatapu Pharmacy for drugs. Burroughs-Mather was sentenced to 12 months' home detention and Burroughs was jailed for three years.

In October 2010, Cromwell man Dale Smitheram died of an accidental overdose after injecting himself with oxycodone.

In August the following year, 44-year-old Vito Vari was found dead at his Nelson home after overdosing on the drug.

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