Market assessment: MEDIUM with a stable market trend.
What are they?
The term “pharmaceutical drugs” includes prescription drugs as well as over-the-counter medications. Many of the pharmaceuticals that are diverted onto the illicit market have an important and legitimate use in managing serious and chronic pain.
The illicit pharmaceuticals market in Queensland
- For some users, pharmaceutical drugs have evolved from a substitute for illicit drugs to a “drug of choice”. However, these drugs continue to be used as substitutes for illicit drugs in some regional areas of Queensland, particularly where there is a shortage of traditional illicit drugs.
- Doctor shopping  and diversion via family and friends with legitimate prescriptions are the most common methods for obtaining pharmaceuticals for misuse.
- The most misused prescription drugs in Queensland are opioid analgesics (e.g. OxyContin®) and benzodiazepines (e.g. Xanax®).
- There has been occasional evidence of “homebake” or “hillbilly heroin” being manufactured in Queensland, using pharmaceutical products containing codeine such as oxycodone.
- An emerging trend in the United States has been pharmaceutical opioid users switching to heroin due to the increased availability of heroin. Anecdotally, this has been attributed to greater restrictions being placed on opioid-prescribing practices and difficulties in accessing prescription drugs.
Organised crime presence
- Most diversion and supply of pharmaceutical drugs on the illicit market is done by users of these drugs who are funding their own addictions.
- However, intelligence indicates that some semi-organised groups and individuals are recognising the profits involved in this market and becoming increasingly involved in supplying these substances.
- As well as increasing use among the general population, there is consistent demand for pharmaceuticals among persons in correctional centres. Intelligence indicates that buprenorphine (Subutex® and Suboxone®) is a popular commodity for trade within correctional centres.
What you should know
- Generally, it is not unlawful to possess a scheduled dangerous drug if it has been prescribed for medical purposes and it is being appropriately used for that purpose. However, if there is no prescription or it is not being used as prescribed, offences may apply (under the Drugs Misuse Act 1986 and the Health (Drugs and Poisons) Regulation 1996).
- The misuse of pharmaceuticals has been linked to gastrointestinal tract complications, renal failure, anaemia and liver failure.
- Pharmaceutical drugs are being used in combination with other illicit drugs to assist with “coming down” or to alleviate the negative effects associated with some drugs. Mixing prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs with other illicit drugs is also increasingly common. However, poly drug use can multiply the effects of each drug (including adverse reactions) and increase the risk of overdose, severe paranoia and other mental health problems.
- There have been several recent detections of counterfeit pharmaceuticals in Queensland. These often look identical to real products. Intelligence indicates that some of the pharmaceuticals purchased over the internet are counterfeit. The increase in online pharmacies and websites may result in more detections of counterfeit pharmaceuticals.
- Counterfeit pharmaceuticals are associated with significant health risks as they may contain either incorrect quantities of active ingredients or completely different and possibly toxic ingredients.
1. ‘Doctor shopping’ describes the process of obtaining a prescription legitimately through a medical practitioner by feigning symptoms targeted at acquiring the desired prescription or requesting the prescription for the medication directly from numerous doctors (Rodwell, Ringland & Bradford, 2010).