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Drugs in Prison: Number of Qld prisoners testing positive doubles as jailed addicts turn to prescription opiate buprenorphine

image - Prison Square

ABC News reports on the rising use of prescription opiates in QLD prisons, with comments by NDARC Director Michael Farrell.

The number of Queensland prisoners testing positive to drugs has doubled in the last year, with a prescription opiate known in prison as "subbies" increasingly becoming the drug of choice.

Experts say Queensland has the nation's worst access to drug treatment programs, and figures obtained by the ABC show desperate prisoners are smuggling in buprenorphine, which, like methadone, is used to treat drug dependence.

Sixty-four of the 102 positive drug tests in prisons last year were for the drug, which is also known by the brand names Subutex and Suboxone.

Drug dogs in jails across the state are now being trained to sniff out the buprenorphine, which comes in a thin clear patch and is easy to conceal.

Queensland is the only state not to offer opiate substitution treatment or harm reduction programs in male prisons, even though it is estimated more than 80 per cent of prisoners use drugs prior to incarceration.

Woodford Correctional Centre general manager Scott Collins said the wide availability of buprenorphine outside prison is causing the black market to thrive.

"It's a prescribed medication in the community that is used for drug withdrawal programs, so it's easily accessible in the community, but the market price goes up significantly in custody," he said.

In 2013 a man was charged with smuggling $100,000 worth of the drug into Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre in his underwear.

Just one tiny patch of the pain killer can net hundreds of dollars in prison, and for those trying to get it in, it is a lucrative trade.

"For a tab it could be a couple of hundred dollars [in prison] whereas in the community it would be in the teens... so there's a lot of money to be made," he said.

"There's obviously the prisoners who are requiring the drugs as part of their addiction and struggling with their addiction in custody ... but you also have those who take the opportunity to make money."

Professor Michael Farrell from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre said a lack of treatment programs left drug-sick prisoners with limited options.

"Buprenorphine doesn't give you that sort of high feeling at all, if you actually depend on opiates and you take it, it will take away the withdrawal symptoms," he said.

"If you don't provide the treatment in the prison one of the things people will end up doing is smuggle the treatment in."

But keeping drugs out is a labour intensive process, and prison staff are already dealing with a record increase in prisoner numbers and assaults.

Prison mail is one way the thin clear drug strip can be trafficked, in sealed envelopes and even behind stamps.

Every package and envelope coming in to Woodford Correctional Centre is opened and carefully dissembled, checked and sorted by hand after the dog unit checks the haul.

It is a frustrating reality for prison staff like Scott Collins, who is constantly trying to stop contraband from entering the prison.

"They're injecting it. Our experience is they are dissolving the buprenorphine and injecting it," he said.

Figures provided to the ABC by the Queensland Corrections Department show more than 540 syringes or needles were found in Queensland prisons over the last three years.

"They are getting syringes most likely through personal visits. And you know the human body has a certain capacity and we have limitations in terms of searching in regards to that," Mr Collins said.

In prison syringes are often shared between four or more prisoners which puts users at high risk of contracting of blood borne viruses like HIV and Hepatitis C.

Professor Farrell from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) said the Queensland Government could save time and money if it looked at introducing drug treatment programs like every other state.

"The evidence is pretty overwhelming of the benefits for both the system and the individuals. It reduces violence and it reduces self harm," he said.

"If prisoners [are released] and they are not in treatment they will significantly reoffend. They are more likely to return to prison and cost more.

NDARC research has also shown opiate treatment programs reduce the risk of prisoners dying of overdose when they are released from prison.

"If they get treatment they settle down quicker, they're at less risk of suicide, they're at less risk of self harm and also we think it reduces drug dealing and violence within the prison setting" Professor Farrell said.

In the wake of the ABC's inquiries, it is understood that the State Government is considering how to introduce opiate replacement treatment in men's prisons to bring Queensland in line with other jurisdictions.

This story was published on 15 April 2015 at ABC News Online.