General Pharmaceutical Drug Information

This section provides general information about pharmaceutical drug use in Australia. It explains what pharmaceutical drugs are, how some of these drugs (namely those with analgesic or sedative-hypnotic properties) are used for both medical and non-medical purposes, and the effects of use.

What are pharmaceutical drugs?

The terms pharmaceuticals and pharmaceutical drugs encompass a variety of medicines used to prevent, diagnose, treat or cure disease. The pharmaceutical drugs section of the NADK addresses a subsection of these medicines, namely those with analgesic or sedative-hypnotic properties. This includes a range of pharmaceutical drugs that are available from various sources such as: 

  • Unscheduled Medicines: Available for general sale in supermarkets, grocery stores, health food stores and pharmacies, often with labels about safe use, (e.g., for non-prescription pain relief medicines). In the NADK, these drugs include some formulations of aspirin, paracetamol and ibuprofen.
  • Schedule 2 - Pharmacy medicines: Available on open shelves only at pharmacies, but a pharmacist or pharmacy assistant must be available for advice if required (e.g., larger packets of non-prescription pain relief medicines). In the NADK, these drugs include some formulations of aspirin, paracetamol and ibuprofen.
  • Schedule 3 - Pharmacist-only medicines: Only available from behind the counter at a pharmacy. No prescription is required but a pharmacist must be consulted before they are dispensed. In the NADK, these drugs include some formulations of ibuprofen and paracetamol.
  • Schedule 4 - Prescription-only medicines: Must be prescribed by an authorised healthcare professional and may be supplied in hospital or purchased from a pharmacy with a prescription. In the NADK, these include tramadol, codeine-containing medicines and most benzodiazepines.   
  • Schedule 8 - Controlled drugs: Must be prescribed by an authorised healthcare professional, who may need a permit to prescribe them. Drugs included in the NADK are opioids (but excluding formulations used for opioid substitution therapy) such as buprenorphine, codeine, fentanyl, hydromorphone, methadone, morphine, oxycodone and tapentadol, and the benzodiazepines flunitrazepam and alprazolam.    

For more information about pharmaceuticals visit DrugInfo.

Source: Adapted from Nicholas, R., Lee, N., and Roche, A. Pharmaceutical drug misuse problems in Australia: Complex issues, balance responses (2011). National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA), Finders University, Adelaide.

Why do people use pharmaceutical drugs for medical and non-medical purposes?

Use of pharmaceuticals for medical purposes

People use pharmaceutical drugs to prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure disease or to manage problematic symptoms. Such use is considered sanctioned when it is consistent with a health professional’s instructions and is in accordance with the instructions on the drug label.

Use of pharmaceuticals for non-medical purposes

Pharmaceutical drugs can be misused for a variety of reasons, including dependence, self-medication, withdrawal from other drugs and enhancement of illicit drug effects.

Non-medical use involves using a substance without medical advice, or in a manner deliberately contrary to instructions provided by a health professional or as specified on the package label. This may include taking the drug via a different route of administration, at a different dosage, or in combination with other drugs.

Pharmaceutical drugs used for non-medical purposes can have potentially dangerous side effects and their use can lead to overdose, addiction, poisoning, disease or death.

For more information about pharmaceuticals visit DrugInfo.

Source: Adapted from the Australian Crime Commission’s Illicit Drug Data Report 2015-16, and Nicholas, R., Lee, N., and Roche, A. (2011). Pharmaceutical drug misuse problems in Australia: Complex issues, balance responses. National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA), Finders University, Adelaide.

How are pharmaceutical drugs used?

Pharmaceutical drugs are used for medical purposes but may also be misused for non-medical purposes.

Medical use of pharmaceutical drugs

Pharmaceutical drugs are used for medical purposes when a person follows the advice/instructions from a doctor, pharmacist, other health professional, or packet label and takes the medication for the purpose for which it is intended.

Non-medical use of pharmaceutical drugs

Non-medical pharmaceutical drug use occurs when a drug is used by a person at a dosage or via a route of administration unintended by the prescriber, pharmacist or drug manufacturer.

Non-medical use includes:

  • Use by an individual to deliberately obtain a non-therapeutic intoxicating effect
  • The use of a prescription medication outside the terms of a prescription
  • Deliberately obtaining prescriptions for drugs from multiple prescribers without informing those prescribers of the full extent of one’s use
  • The supply of prescription pharmaceutical drugs to a person for whom the drugs were not prescribed  
  • The purchase or use of prescription pharmaceutical drugs by a person other than the prescribed user
  • The use of pharmaceutical drugs at a dosage, or via a route of administration, unintended by the prescriber, pharmacist or manufacturer (e.g., the injection of a drug intended for oral use).    

For more information about pharmaceuticals visit DrugInfo.

Source: Adapted from Nicholas, R., Lee, N., and Roche, A. (2011). Pharmaceutical drug misuse problems in Australia: Complex issues, balance responses. National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA), Finders University, Adelaide.