A Channel Nine investigation into methadone patients and road use has been met with outrage from health professionals
In December 2017, Ulladulla man Craig Anthony Whitall, 51, was driving home from a NSW methadone clinic when his car veered onto the wrong side of the Princes Highway and collided with a car carrying the Falkholt family.
Mr Whitall was killed instantly, as was Lars Falkholt, 69 and his wife Vivian, 60.
Daughters Annabelle, 21, and Jessica Falkholt, 28, died in the weeks to follow.
The incident has sparked a nationwide debate about whether people should be allowed to drive after attending a methadone clinic.
In late January, drug testing service provider Drug-Safe Communities WA called for changes, stating there were flaws in current legislation allowing methadone patients to drive.
“Methadone is a powerful drug and by no means ‘safe’. Methadone is a depressant and dramatically slows down the messages between your brain and your body,” said the organisation.
“If a person has received methadone, it is affecting them. The synthetic substance has entered the blood stream which is then present in every part of the body.”
Continuing the debate, a recent segment by A Current Affair explored the topic – and their take on the issue has left health professionals furious.
The segment entitled “Methadone madness” involved reporters staking out a methadone clinic and filming patients leaving the centre using a hidden camera (the footage screened with their faces blurred out).
It refers to methadone patients as “users” getting a “fix” at the clinic.
“Drugged up, now watch as he gets into a car and drives off … and, he’s not alone,” says the ACA presenter.
“So why is it methadone users are allowed to drive?”
At one point, the segment also refers to methadone as “meth” (which is a common reference to methamphetamine, rather than methadone).
Outrage from the health sector
Many viewers were outraged at the use of language in the segment.
“This is a terrible piece of apparent journalism. To stigmatise and prey a group of people in society for a ‘story’ is appalling behaviour,” said PSA national president Dr Shane Jackson on Twitter in response to the piece after airing.
“Patients receiving methadone are receiving treatment, not a fix, and can drive when they are stabilised on treatment.
“Pharmacists are frustrated by the negative external perception towards people who are seeking help and treatment for drug dependency,” Dr Jackson told the AJP.
“The high absolute numbers of people who misuse or who are dependent on prescription opioids and even other drugs such as benzodiazepines highlights that we need to have better identification and management processes for people who are at risk and who are dependent on opioids and other high risk drugs.”
Victorian pharmacist and vice-president of the PSA Victorian branch Jarrod McMaugh said the segment was a “disingenuous article that exploits a family’s tragedy for advertising ratings.”
“This video has an appalling amount of misinformation, breaches the privacy of the people it films, and intentionally uses divisive language,” said Mr McMaugh.
Melbourne GP Dr Paul Grinzi, an educator in drug and alcohol addiction medicine, responded to the ACA segment on Twitter, saying: “As opposed to alcohol and benzodiazepines, there is little direct evidence that pharmacotherapy treatment such as methadone has direct adverse effects on driving behaviour. This means that patients on a stable dose of methadone may not have a higher risk of a crash.
“A dose of methadone doesn’t start being active for at least an hour. There’s no ‘hit’ [and] ‘meth’ is amphetamines not methadone – this article is complete rubbish.”
Under the influence?
In Australia, it is not illegal for a motorist to drive with methadone in their system.
However drivers can be charged if they used any substance that impaired their ability to drive.
The NSW Police Force says in its guidelines on opioid treatment programs that: “Methadone and buprenorphine are legal opioids used in the treatment of opioid dependence.
“Opioid treatments such as methadone and buprenorphine give people the opportunity to rebuild their lives. In assisting people to reduce or stop their illegal drug use, these treatments improve health and social functioning.
“Methadone or buprenorphine has minimal effect on driving skills in most individuals where the individual is on a stable dose,” says NSW Police.
“However, a person’s driving may be impaired if they have just commenced opioid treatment, have had a change in dose, or have used alcohol or other drugs in addition to their opioid treatment.
“As with all drugs including alcohol, it is the individual’s responsibility to gauge their ability to drive.
“Health professionals are advised to inform an individual of the potential effect of a drug on driving-related skills.
“The use or attempted use of a vehicle while under the influence of methadone or buprenorphine to the extent that the person’s driving is impaired is an offence prosecuted under the Road Transport (Safety and Traffic Management Act) 1999.”
Drug-Safe Communities WA Principal Brian Lloyd argues that people who have been treated with methadone are unable to properly self-diagnose whether their driving skills are impaired.
He said that while nobody can prevent methadone patients from driving, pharmacists who provide methadone services should counsel them about the side-effects of the medicine, “and counsel them towards behaviours and actions that could potentially save their life, and more important the life of other innocent road users”.