Pharmaceutical Misuse

In the context of illicit drug use, pharmaceutical drug misuse is defined as a drug that is available from a pharmacy, over-the-counter or by prescription. Pharmaceutical misuse in Australia is more common that people think and increasing.

The National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2013 found 4.7% of people had misused pharmaceuticals such as analgesics, tranquillisers or steroids for non-medical purposes. Misuse of analgesics (2.5%) was the third most common form of illicit drug use, behind cannabis (9.1%) and ecstasy (3.5%) use, and ahead of more readily identified drugs of misuse such as cocaine (1.6%) and heroin (0.2%). Misuse of tranquilisers and sleeping pills was reported by 1.4% of the population.

What is all the fuss about?

The risks associated with the use and misuse of pharmaceutical drugs is often overlooked by the community. Many people perceive opioid analgesics and benzodiazepines to be “low risk” because they are prescribed by a health professional, so they are seen as safer than illicit drugs because you buy them from a pharmacy so people do not see them as illicit drugs with a potential for misuse and harms.

What are the risks of using pharmaceuticals? 

As with any drug misuse you can run the risk of developing dependence, poisoning, serious morbidity and even death from overdose. Pharmaceutical drug use is serious and you should ensure you know what you are taking and how to take it and what if any are the risks of overdose.

How can I reduce the harms?

The Australian Drug Foundation has some useful tips to help you reduce the harms associated with pharmaceutical use.

Be Informed

Do some research — make sure you have accurate and factual information about the pharmaceutical drug you are using, or thinking about using Ask about the risks associated with its misuse and how use consume or take the drug. Make sure the information comes from a source you can trust – because there are many myths about drug use and some of these can be dangerous to your health.

You can call a peer organisation like NUAA or speak to the staff at your local NSP or a doctor or prescriber you trust.

What sort of questions should I ask?

Good idea is to ask:

  • What are the active ingredients and how much is in a dose and what effect should I experience and how long should it last?
  • If the drug is meant to be taken orally what are the harms associated with taking it another way?
  • What other ingredients are included? Some pills contain other substances like chalk or wax that can be harmful if injected without a wheel filter.
  • Is the drug water soluble? Some benzos are not water soluble injecting them can be very harmful even with a wheel filter
  • Can you become dependent on the pharmaceutical drug and what are the withdrawal symptoms?

What other risks are there?

You may find yourself facing a charge of doctor shopping.  The term ‘doctor-shopping’ describes the process of attending numerous doctors by one person in order to obtain excess amount of prescriptions beyond what a person would normally require or medically need.

There now is a Prescription Shopping Information Service that doctors can ring 24 hours a day 7 days a week to see if you meet the criteria of someone receiving more prescriptions under the PBS than you medically need. More information about Prescription Shopping Program.

For more information


Australian Drug Foundation