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Benzodiazepine use and harms

Media Release

14 June 2007

'Benzodiazepines, which are frequently prescribed for the treatment of a range of anxiety conditions and insomnia, have been found to be associated with dependence and a range of other harms related to recreational and other misuse', Dr Toni Makkai, Director of the Australian Institute of Criminology, said on the release of 'Benzodiazepine use and harms among police detainees in Australia', number 336 in the Trends and issues in crime and criminal justice series.

'The use of benzodiazepines in conjunction with other drugs, particularly heroin and amphetamines, indicates a greater risk of harms, notably heroin overdose', Dr Makkai said.

The paper investigates self-reported prevalence, patterns and potential harms of benzodiazepine use in a sample of adult suspected offenders, using data from the Drug Use Monitoring in Australia (DUMA) program for the period 1999 to 2005.

Of the total sample of almost 13,000 interviewees (83% male), around 13 percent had used prescribed benzodiazepines in the previous week/fortnight, mostly as diazepam, although temazepam, oxazepam, flunitrazepam and alprazolam were also commonly used.

The reasons for the misuse of benzodiazepines include dependence, self-medication, dealing with withdrawal from other drugs, drug substitution, enhancement of other drug use, and use as a street currency.

Benzodiazepines can be accessed through doctor shopping, theft, fraud and/or forgery of prescriptions.

Almost 18 percent of the DUMA sample had used benzodiazepines in the previous month and 15 percent had used illegal benzodiazepines in the previous 12 months. The majority of illegal benzodiazepine users had also used heroin and/or amphetamines in the same time frame. This indicates that illegal benzodiazepine use is likely to be part of a pattern of generalised illicit drug use.

The paper explores the pattern of use over time of benzodiazepines which has been linked to heroin use, and compares patterns of use with heroin and amphetamines. The pattern of benzodiazepine use is similar to that of heroin. Benzodiazepine use increased between 1999 and 2000 to 19 percent and then declined over time to 10 percent in 2005.

The prevalence of benzodiazepine use among women is cause for concern although not surprising because problematic drug use is often found amongst female offenders, and is linked to victimisation, mental health problems, and drug and alcohol abuse among family members, and delinquency.

The paper advocates early intervention in the community, particularly with high risk families, to reduce social disadvantage and harmful drug and alcohol use, and to minimise the transmission of harmful drug and alcohol use and offending to further generations.