Pills, thrills and the Heath Ledger effect

Josephine Tovey
August 1, 2009 - 12:00AM

YOUNG Australians are mixing dangerous chemical cocktails by using tranquillisers and sleeping pills recreationally and combining them with other legal and illicit drugs.

‘‘People are more and more playing chemistry,’’ the head of emergency medicine at St Vincent’s Hospital, Gordian Fulde, said. ‘‘They take an upper, like energy drinks or illegal drugs like ecstasy, then to soften the landing … they take the benzos, the Valium-type drugs, so they don’t crash and burn so harshly … It’s a hell of a mess.’’

Two weeks ago the Queensland State of Origin rugby league squad was rocked by claims that players had been mixing the controversial sleeping pill Stilnox with the energy drink Red Bull, allegedly to produce a ‘‘high’’ that would evade drug tests.

While most doctors agree Stilnox abuse has declined since claims it was involved in the death of the actor Heath Ledger, the abuse of other pharmaceuticals, such as benzodiazepines, including Valium, is on the rise.

There has been a 40 per cent rise over three years in the number of people using tranquillisers and sleeping pills recreationally, according to the latest study, but doctors say more research is needed to understand the worsening problem.

According to Suzanne Nielsen, a researcher at the Turning Point Drug and Alcohol Centre, pharmaceutical drugs have overtaken cannabis in the US as the first-time abusers’ choice.

‘‘The problem, from what we know, is not of that magnitude here. But if we don’t intervene now it could become so,’’ she said.

Dr Nielsen said people were turning to pharmaceutical drugs because they were fairly cheap and easily available compared with illicit drugs – and they were perceived to be safe.

In the 2007 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, 1.4 per cent of people reported recent use of tranquillisers and sleeping pills for non-medical purposes, compared with 1 per cent in 2004. The survey also found 1.2 million Australians, or 7 per cent, had used painkillers, tranquillisers, barbiturates and/or steroids for non-medical purposes at some point in their lives.

The numbers are higher among ecstasy users. Thirty-nine per cent have used illicit benzodiazepines, according to the Australian Trends in Ecstasy and Related Drugs Markets 2007.

The risks associated with recreational use of benzodiazepines included over-sedation and death.

Doctors in Australia have proposed an online prescription monitoring system to help prevent inappropriate prescribing.

This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/national/pills-thrills-and-the-heath-ledger-effect-20090731-e4f1.html


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