Non-Medical Use of Prescription Drugs

Diversion of drugs for non-medical use (NMU)

This is blog 1 of 10 blogs on the topic of non-medical use of prescription medicines and overdose risks. This blog is part of the series on drug overdose awareness and overdose prevention inspired by International Overdose Awareness Day (2021).

This article discusses the risks and prevalence of NMU (non-medical use) of prescription pharmaceutical products.

These blogs series focusing on drug overdose prevention, including NMU of prescription medications, aims to focus attention on:

  • the increasing number of overdose toxicity cases attending Emergency Rooms
  • the rise in overdose toxicity fatalities caused by polydrug use (polysubstance use)
  • the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on substance use behaviours and overdose rates
  • International Overdose Day and other overdose prevention efforts by the Penington Institute


Polydrug use (definition): Polydrug use (polysubstance use) means concurrent use of more than one drug substance, such as concurrent use of alcohol, prescribed medications, opioids, and/or other potent drugs. Polydrug use/polysubstance use overdoses tend to involve the intake of more than one toxic substance in a condensed period of time (e.g. several hours) where the effects of each individual substance are impacted by the presence of other substance(s) in the person’s bloodstream.

Read the blog on 2020-2021 overdose statistics 

Download the latest Australian overdose statistics revealed in the Penington Institute’s 2021 Australian Overdose Report.*

Polysubstance use may include but is not limited to:

  • concurrent intake of legal substances with illicit substances (for example, alcohol use with cocaine use, MDMA)
  • mixing illicit drugs and/or alcohol with prescription medications
  • prescription medications consumed for ‘non-medical use’ (NMU) with other substances of intoxication

The effects of intaking multiple toxic substances in a proximal period of time include detrimental drug-to-drug interactions and higher levels of toxicity, which can lead to seizures, permanent brain damage, and death. Non-medical use of prescription medicines (NMU), such as taking someone else’s prescriptions, can also prove deadly.

Unfortunately, concurrent consumption of toxic substances – and overdose risks related to polysubstance use – are at epidemic levels in society.


Polysubstance use harms and overdose risks

Why is polydrug use harmful?

When drugs interact with other drugs in a person’s bloodstream, this alters the drug’s expected effects. It often results in adverse drug-to-drug interactions.

Additionally, polydrug use/polysubstance use generally equates to higher levels of intoxication (blood toxicity) – which can prove fatal.

Emergency rooms are inundated with individuals who are experiencing overdose toxicity related to drugs.

In some cases, it ends up being fatal.

Mixing substances such as pain medicines, illicit drugs and alcohol – and/or excessive dosing of a single drug – can lead to:

  • permanent brain damage (neurotoxicity to the serotonergic system in the brain)
  • temporary psychosis/long-term psychiatric problems
  • physical disabilities
  • fatal levels of overdose toxicity

Note: this list is not inclusive of drug-related harms, such as injuries from accidents and drug-related violence, criminal charges/jail time, relationship breakdowns, institutionalisation and/or homelessness.

When is ‘drug overdose awareness day’?

Please click here to donate to the Penington Institute and click here to organise an overdose awareness campaign or fundraising event.

Pharmaceutical industry support | overdose prevention efforts

As an industry, we can help reduce overdoses by a number of compliance measures.

  • One of the articles in this blog series discusses how GMP compliance contributes to diversion prevention as well as proper packaging and labelling.
  • Ensuring compliance with Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) and GxP, including Good Distribution Practice (GDP) and Good Documentation Practice, are some of the ways we can assist our community in overdose prevention efforts.
  • But we can also help by increasing community awareness of the dangers of non-medical use (NMU) of pharmaceutical products – and the dangers of mixing drugs (polysubstance use) such as mixing alcohol, opioid medications and certain types of prescriptions.
  • And we can each do our part to participate in International Drug Overdose Awareness Day on the 31st of August 2021, and other prevention measures (such as supporting research efforts by the Penington Institute).

For additional information, read this entire series of blogs being published from 22 August 2021 through 31 August 2021 in support of polydrug-use overdose awareness and overdose prevention day.

Overdose Awareness and Prevention Resources and Research

Please support the Penington Institute.

Please FOLLOW US on LinkedIn and/or return to these is blog pages for the additional blogs on drug overdose awareness and prevention, being published daily from 22 August through 31 August 2021 (inclusive).
Thank you for bringing awareness to this important topic.

This is the 1st of 10 articles/blogs discussing drug overdose statistics and polydrug use harms.