NEARLY half a million Australians are abusing prescription drugs, a leading drug specialist claims.
Professor John Saunders of the University of Queensland said that while illicit street drugs grabbed headlines, the misuse of prescription medicine was the "real drug crisis gripping Australia".
"There are 75,000 regular users of heroin in Australia but this pales in comparison to the 150,000 people abusing prescribed opioids and 300,000 abusing benzodiazepines," he said.
Professor Saunders is a member of the Australian National Council on Drugs and holds a post with the World Health Organisation.
Australia has one of the world's highest rates of prescription drug abuse, he said.
"Benzodiazepines, more commonly known as tranquillisers or sleeping pills, are prescribed by doctors for sleep problems or anxiety.
"A substantial portion of the adult population use benzos to help them sleep, but they can easily develop an addiction. It can take as little as two weeks of regular use to become dependent on the drug."