Unfortunately, as unique as Australia is culturally the country often follows global drug use patterns. One of the more recent trends has been the increasing use of oxycodone. Oxycodone is a prescription drug that is also sold on the black market making it a licit and illicit substance. Several studies have indicated that the number of deaths attributed to this drug is rising, and that’s one trend Australia should not be following.
Employers are faced with keeping abreast of new drugs that compromise workplace safety when used by employees. Though oxycodone represents a fairly new drug in terms of its illegal use by Australians, it has actually been around quite a long time. First introduced in Germany in 1916, oxycodone is an opioid analgesic prescribed to relieve moderate to severe pain. Structurally similar to codeine, it is synthesised from thebaine which is an alkaloid found in the opium poppy.
Unlike aspirin that relieves pain at the pain site, oxycodone affects the brain and central nervous system. The drug binds to the nerve ending receptors that most affect awareness of pain and pleasure. By blocking the work of the neurotransmitters, the drug is able to reduce feelings of pain and increase feelings of well being. The euphoric feelings produced are precisely why drug addicts like oxycodone.
This is a drug that the user can build up a tolerance for leading to a need for an increased dosage to get the same effects. The effects of oxycodone are similar to the feelings a person gets when using heroin if a large enough dose is taken at once. The drug floods the body and produces a feeling of euphoria followed by a period in which the person goes into a dreamlike state. Eventually the drug wears off, but that only makes the person want another dose because reality compared to the dreamlike state creates feelings of unease, dissatisfaction and depression in an emotional state called dysphoria.
Oxycodone is a very dangerous drug, especially when a tablet is crushed before ingestion. Taking too much of the drug can cause breathing to stop even on the first dose because the section of the brain oxycodone affects is the same section that controls breathing.
Employers need to be aware of this drug because it will be detected by a drug test like the saliva drug test designed to detect opiates. The difficulty employers face is that oxycodone is a controlled substance in Australia and legal with a prescription. Unfortunately, it is also a drug that is sold illegally on the streets of Australian meaning that it is necessary to differentiate between legal and illegal users. The drug and alcohol testing policy and procedures should include a section on obtaining prescription drug information from employees and personal information confidentiality. Whether or not the drug is obtained legally or illegally the employer needs to know if use will present a safety hazard because of the dreamlike state it produces.
Oxycontin, Percodan and Percocet are brand name drugs containing oxycodone. Called ‘hillbilly heroin’ in the United States, the Australian drug dealers are now hawking Oxycontin to the addicted.1 In fact, Oxycontin is a preferred drug to heroin for two reasons, 1) it is cheaper than heroin, and 2) the euphoric feelings produced last up to 48 hours whereas heroin lasts 4 hours. In an ironic twist, one of the reasons Oxycontin is inexpensive is because it is a legal drug that is subsidised by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.2
The Australian black market for oxycodone is growing. Between 1991 and 2006, it is estimated that drug use has grown by 15 fold. One reason for the increased usage by Australians is that a heroin shortage exists. Drug users often inject the drug just like they did heroin though it can be taken in tablet form or snorted also. It is a pervasive drug found in all Australian territories and states. Getting the drug is not difficult for those who know how to ‘doctor shop’ or ‘fossil farm.’ Doctor shopping refers to people who go from doctor to doctor asking for painkiller prescription drugs. Fossil farming refers to buying prescription Oxycontin from older pensioners who obtained the painkiller legally but sell it illegally to raise funds.3
In a sobering interview, a former oxycodone user explained how he injected the drug and pieces of the crushed tablet blocked capillaries and larger veins in his hand and arm preventing blood flow. The addict is a qualified boilermaker welder no longer able to work because the arm had to be amputated.4 Clearly the use of oxycodone directly impacts Australian employers and workforce productivity.
CMM Technology at http://cmm.com.au/index.php works closely with employers interested in developing effective drug and alcohol testing programs. Quality programs and testing equipment will detect opiates like oxycodone that are commonly ingested by employees.
1. Edwards, M. (2008, June 23). ‘Hillbilly Heroin’ Makes Its Mark on Australian Streets. Retrieved June 7, 2011, from ABC News: http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/06/23/2282439.htm
3. Cannane, S. (2009, August 19). Concern Aired Over Oxycodone Black Market. Retrieved June 5, 2011, from Lateline.: http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2008/s2661133.htm