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Diversion of prescribed opioids by people living with chronic pain: Results from an Australian community sample


  • Jessica Belcher PhD, Research Officer, Suzanne Nielsen PhD, NHMRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Gabrielle Campbell MCrim, Senior Research Officer, Raimondo Bruno PhD, Senior Lecturer, Bianca Hoban, Bachelor of Health and Medical Science (Hons), Research Officer, Briony Larance PhD, Lecturer, Associate Professor, Nicholas Lintzeris, PhD, Director Professor, Louisa Degenhardt PhD, Professor and NHMRC Principal Research Fellow.


Introduction and Aims

There has been an increase in prescription of opioids for chronic non-cancer pain, and concern exists over possible diversion of prescription opioids to the illicit marketplace. Recent media coverage suggests that elderly patients sell their prescribed opioids for additional income. This study investigated the extent to which an Australian community sample of chronic pain patients prescribed opioids reported supplying their prescribed opioids to others.

Design and Methods

Participants living with chronic non-cancer pain and prescribed opioids for their pain (n = 952) were recruited across Australia via advertisements at pharmacies. A telephone interview included questions about their pain condition and opioid medication.


Participants had been living with pain for a mean of 14.2 years; most common conditions included chronic back/neck problems and arthritis/rheumatism. Around half (43%) were currently prescribed one opioid, and 55% had been prescribed 2–5 opioids; the most common was oxycodone. Forty-two participants (4%) reported ever supplying prescribed opioids to another person; one participant reported receiving payment. Participants who supplied opioids to others were younger (odds ratio 0.97, 95% confidence interval 0.95–0.99) and engaged in a greater number of aberrant behaviours relating to their opioid medication (odds ratio 1.77, 95% confidence interval 1.45–2.17), including tampering with doses, taking opioids by alternative routes, seeing doctors to obtain extra opioids and refilling prescriptions early.

Discussion and Conclusion

Few people with chronic non-cancer pain divert their opioids to others. Media reports of elderly patients selling their opioids to supplement their income may be reflective of exceptional cases. Future studies may investigate the extent to which other patient groups divert prescription opioids to the illicit marketplace. [Belcher J, Nielsen S, Campbell G, Bruno R, Hoban B, Larance B, Lintzeris N, Degenhardt L. Diversion of prescribed opioids by people living with chronic pain: Results from an Australian community sample. Drug Alcohol Rev 2014;33:27–32]