'I Get So Angry': More Australians Are Dying From Painkiller Overdoses Than Ever

It was perfectly legal, right up until it killed him.

At the height of his addiction, West Australian dad Benjamin Campbell was taking 25 pills at a time.

They weren't illicit drugs -- they were Valium tablets, legally obtained through an easily manipulated system.

The tranquilizer tablets came in bottles of 50, and simple maths would show that Ben was going through a bottle every two days.

No doctor in Australia would prescribe one person such a high dose. But for addicts like Ben, it wasn't too hard to go from doctor to doctor, pharmacist to pharmacist, and obtain pills in lethal quantities.

Ben had been a normal, sporty kid, but developing acute anxiety around the age of 15, and the Valium prescription that followed, put him on a path of painkiller addiction and the instability that followed.

Years later, during one of Ben's regular stints back in the family home, his mum Christine found evidence that her son's painkiller addiction had reached new levels.

"I found prescription bottles, issued the same date, by different doctors, all for benzos [benzodiazephines]," she told ten daily.

"They were basically empty."

Ben Campbell. Supplied.

What followed was a desperate struggle by Christine and her husband to help Ben, even if he couldn't help himself.

She visited three different doctors he'd acquired scripts from, but due to doctor-patient confidentiality, they wouldn't talk to her.

She went to police armed with photocopies of his scripts, only to be told they couldn't do anything. She spent months trying to get an answer from Medicare, but seven months later found herself getting nowhere.

"It was just a battle," she said.

One night, in May 2015, Christine and her husband got a knock at the door just past midnight to tell them their son was dead. It was a prescription drug overdose.

Doctors tell her that he probably died within minutes of taking a dose of fentanyl, a drug that's about 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

"I get so angry," Christine told ten daily. "It could have been prevented, but how?" A trace of anger enters her voice for the first time. "That's the big thing. How."

Christine is speaking about her son's drug problem -- a long held family secret -- in the hope that no one else suffers the same fate. Photo: Supplied.

There were 1,045 deaths from opioid overdoses in 2016, according to a report released this month by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at UNSW Sydney, a figure that's almost doubled in ten years.

The majority of these deaths (76 percent) are attributed to pharmaceutical opioids -- that is, drugs that have been legally acquired with a script. Almost all (85 percent) of the deaths are considered accidental.

Christine is one of 28 bereaved family members urging Australia's state and territory health ministers to bring in real-time monitoring of prescription drugs, something that was first recommended by a royal commission almost 40 years ago.

Another is Kim Ledger, father of the late actor Heath Ledger.

19-year-old Heath Ledger, at the start of an illustrious film career. Heath died in 2008, age 28, from an accidental prescription drug overdose. Photo: Getty.

"Coroners, doctors, police, paramedics, health care workers and all professional peak medical bodies have advocated for national real-time monitoring for many years," the letter reads.

"How many more loved ones have died since we started campaigning? How many more families will endure loss of a loved one, as we have, before our government acts?"

The question is whether Australia waits for the Federal Government to legislate, or if each state and territory takes matters into their own hands.

Matthew Fisher, Liam Brennan and Elsje Alberdina Goodenough, who all died from prescription overdoses. Their families have all signed the letter to Australia's state and territory health ministers. Photo: Supplied.

The Turnbull government has committed to investing $16 million, but as of yet there is no deadline for the plan to roll-out.

Tasmania became the first state to bring in real-time monitoring earlier this year, and somewhere between 30 and 50 people are turned away from accessing prescription drugs each day, according to Tasmania's chief pharmacist Peter Boyles.

Victoria has also committed to bring in reform.

In NSW, the State Opposition has pledged $30 million towards the issue if elected next year, with Opposition Leader Luke Foley arguing that "all too often, people are going from GP to GP and pharmacy to pharmacy to access these prescription based drugs [with] no system of oversight".

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard, who believes a state-based solution is "pointless", has nevertheless requested specialist advice on the cost and strategy for a state-based solution.

ScriptWise is a not-for-profit outfit advocating for reform around prescription medication. It was set up by Kim Ledger in the wake of his son's death, and now Christine is a board member, fighting for change.

Her son's drug problem was a family secret for years, she told ten daily, but no more.

"We've got to do something to reduce the deaths that aren't necessary," she said.

"If I stop one person from doing what Benjamin did, then I've won. I've won for Benjamin."