Non-medical use of pharmaceuticals falls

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The proportion of people using codeine for non-medical purposes has halved since 2016 and this is likely due to its upscheduling, according to the latest National Drug Strategy Household Survey

Between 2016 and 2019, non-medical use of pharmaceuticals in the last 12 months fell from 4.8% (1 million) to 4.2% (900,000).

“This trend was largely driven by a drop in the non‑medical use of painkillers and opioids, from 3.6% of Australians in 2016 to 2.7% in 2019,” explains the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) in the National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019, released Thursday.

“This drop is likely due to a reclassification of medications containing codeine implemented in 2018.”

AIHW found the proportion of people using codeine for non‑medical purposes has halved since 2016, from 3.0% to 1.5% in 2019.

Under the rescheduling change in February 2018, drugs with codeine could no longer be bought from a pharmacy without a prescription.

In 2016, painkillers and opioids were the second most common illicitly used drug in the previous 12 months, behind cannabis.

However in 2019 they were the fourth most common, after cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy.

Meanwhile there has been increasing interest over the last few years in the use of cannabis for medical purposes, the AIHW survey found.

Since February 2016, medicinal cannabis products have been available for specific patients under strict medical supervision. Outside of these provisions, cannabis continues to be considered illegal under Australian law.

In 2019, about one in eight Australians (11.7% or 2.5 million) had used cannabis in the previous 12 months (including those who used it for medical purposes and had it prescribed by a doctor).

Of people who used cannabis recently, 6.8% said they only used cannabis for medical purposes, and 16.3% said they sometimes used it for medical purposes and sometimes for other reasons.

This equates to 2.7% in the total Australian population (or about 600,000 people) using cannabis for medical purposes, either always or sometimes.

Substance use is generally rising for older people and falling for younger people, according to the survey.

For example, in 2001, people in their 20s were most likely to have ever used an illicit drug, but by 2019, it was people in their 40s.

While proportions of illicit drug use rose among older age groups over the past two decades, proportions remained stable for people in their 30s and fell for people under 30.

In 2001, people in their 20s were also the most likely to smoke daily, but in 2019 it was people in their 40s and 50s.

“One of the reasons for these changes could be that, in 2001, use of alcohol and illicit drugs was highest among people in their 20s. By 2019, these people were in their 40s and, for some, the substance use of their youth may have continued,” says the AIHW.

Meanwhile the proportion of young adults (aged 18–29) who abstain from alcohol more than doubled between 2001 and 2019, while for people aged 70 and over, the proportion abstaining has declined.

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