Dependence on opioid drugs (including codeine, oxycodone and heroin) is associated with a range of health and social harms that affect people who use these drugs, their family and friends, and the wider community. Opioid pharmacotherapy treatment can help reduce harm by providing regular dosing with a safer, legally obtained, longer-lasting opioid. This can reduce cravings for other opioids, help clients to manage the effects of drug dependence and improve overall quality of life.

The NOPSAD report provides information about clients receiving opioid pharmacotherapy in Australia, as well as health professionals who prescribe opioid pharmacotherapy and dosing points (such as pharmacies) where clients receive treatment.

What is opioid drug dependence?

Opioid drugs are substances that have a similar action to morphine in the brain (ADF 2023). They can be prescription pain medicines (such as codeine and oxycodone) or illicit drugs (such as heroin). 

These include:

  • Opiates, which are naturally derived from the opium poppy (such as codeine and heroin).
  • Semi-synthetic opioids, which are modified versions of natural opiates (such as oxycodone).
  • Synthetic opioids, which are fully synthesised from precursor compounds (such as fentanyl and methadone) (ADF 2023).

Since 1 February 2018, access to all opioid pain medicines has required a prescription in Australia. Prior to this, medicines containing low doses of codeine were available over the counter at pharmacies (ADF 2023). Prescription opioids may also be obtained illicitly.

Opioids are often prescribed for the management of strong pain. However, they can produce euphoria and are sometimes used for non-medical reasons. Long-term or non-medical use of opioids can lead to health problems such as drug dependence and overdose (WHO 2021). When people use opioids regularly or over a long period of time, they are at an increased risk of developing opioid drug dependence (ADF 2023). Opioid dependence is characterised by a strong desire to use opioids and loss of control over use. 

The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, 10th revision (ICD-10) (WHO 2010) defines dependence syndrome due to the use of opioids as: 

'A cluster of behavioural, cognitive, and physiological phenomena that develop after repeated substance use and that typically include a strong desire to take the drug, difficulties in controlling its use, persisting in its use despite harmful consequences, a higher priority given to drug use than to other activities and obligations, increased tolerance, and sometimes a physical withdrawal state (Code F11.2).'

What are the impacts of opioid dependence?

Opioid dependence is linked to a range of health and social harms, for both individuals who use opioids and the wider community.

These include:

  • Loss of life through overdose.
  • Medical and mental health impacts, including transmission of hepatitis C, hepatitis B and HIV, and depression.
  • Social impacts, including on relationships, employment, education, housing, parenting, finances and crime.
  • Financial costs related to health and social services and judicial systems (NSW Ministry of Health 2018).

What treatment is available?

Treatments for opioid use disorders aim to reduce the harms associated with dependence (NSW Ministry of Health 2018). Opioid pharmacotherapy treatment, also known as opioid agonist therapy, is one of the most common treatments used for opioid drug dependence in Australia. Opioid pharmacotherapy involves replacing the opioid drug of dependence with a longer-lasting, medically-prescribed opioid.

Opioid pharmacotherapy can reduce drug cravings and other withdrawal symptoms in clients (Gowing et al. 2014). Pharmacotherapy can also have positive impacts on physical and mental health, social functioning and economic participation, and reduce drug-related crime (Ritter and Chalmers 2009). Clients can receive pharmacotherapy for dependence on a range of opioids, including illicit drugs (such as heroin) and pharmaceutical opioids (such as codeine and oxycodone) (AIHW 2018).

In Australia, 4 medications are registered as pharmacotherapy treatment for people with opioid dependence (Table INTRO1). Two depot formulations of buprenorphine (Buvidal® and Sublocade®) were registered for use in the treatment of opioid dependence across Australia in recent years. These long-acting injections (described in this report as buprenorphine LAI) were reported where possible for the first time in the 2020 NOPSAD collection. See Glossary for more information on opioid pharmacotherapy medications in Australia.

Table INTRO1: Types of opioid pharmacotherapy medications
Pharmacotherapy drug typeAdministration methodDosing frequencyBrand names
MethadoneOral (taken as liquid)Daily

Methadone Syrup®

Biodone Forte Solution®
BuprenorphineOral (taken as tablet)Once every 1–3 days


Buprenorphine-naloxoneOral (taken as tablet or sublingual film)Once every 1–3 daysSuboxone®
Buprenorphine long-acting injections (LAI)Subcutaneous injectionWeekly or monthly



Policy context

Opioid pharmacotherapy treatment is administered according to the law of the relevant state or territory, and within a framework that includes medical, social and psychological treatment. The Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care has published National Guidelines for Medication-Assisted Treatment of Opioid Dependence (Gowing et al. 2014). These guidelines provide a broad policy context and framework for states and territories when developing their own policies and guidelines for the medication-assisted treatment of opioid dependence. However, policies differ between states and territories.

Opioid pharmacotherapy medicines on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme

The Australian Government supports access to opioid pharmacotherapy medicines via the national Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). Under the PBS, Australian residents can access a range of medicines at a cheaper price, subsidised by the Government. Most PBS-listed medicines can only be dispensed at a pharmacy (PBS 2022). Opioid pharmacotherapy medicines currently listed on the PBS Schedule include:

  • methadone oral liquid
  • buprenorphine sublingual tablets
  • buprenorphine-naloxone sublingual films
  • long-acting injectable buprenorphine products.

On 1 July 2023, opioid pharmacotherapy medicines became part of the Section 100 Highly Specialised Drugs (HSD) Program (Community Access) arrangements (PBS 2023). Under the Section 100 HSD Program, eligible patients can access up to 28 days’ supply of opioid pharmacotherapy treatment under PBS co-payment. In addition, a community pharmacy program for opioid pharmacotherapy medicines was established, introducing nationally consistent payment arrangements for pharmacotherapy services provided by community pharmacists. For more information, see Opioid Dependence Treatment Program.

This change may have impacts for the NOPSAD collection in future, for example by allowing use of supplementary data from the PBS to examine dispensing of opioid pharmacotherapy scripts.

What is the NOPSAD collection?

The National Opioid Pharmacotherapy Statistics Annual Data (NOPSAD) collection is compiled from jurisdictional data and provides information about:

  • clients receiving opioid pharmacotherapy treatment
  • the health professionals prescribing opioid pharmacotherapy drugs
  • the dosing points (such as pharmacies) that clients attend to receive their medication.

Data are reported on a snapshot day in June each year. The snapshot day varies across jurisdictions, as each state and territory uses a slightly different method to collect data. These methodological differences are primarily due to jurisdictional variations in legislation, client management systems and resources. Caution should be exercised when comparing one jurisdiction to another. In 2023, data for Western Australia were not available and have not been included in this report.

For more information on the NOPSAD collection, see Technical notes and the NOPSAD Data Quality Statement.