‘Potential issues of morbidity, toxicity and dependence’: Problematizing the up-scheduling of over-the-counter codeine in Australia Academic Article uri icon


  • Until February of 2018, Australians were able to purchase low-dose codeine products (LDCPs) over-the-counter from pharmacies. In 2017, following review and public consultation, Australia's therapeutic drug regulator rescheduled LDCPs to prescription-only, in line with other higher-dose codeine and opioid products. In this article, we draw on Bacchi's 'what's the problem represented to be' approach to 'work backwards', analysing this 'solution' and the particular 'problematisation' of codeine it produces and relies on. We analyse the 'final decision and reasons for decisions' document, which outlines the consultation and decision-making process leading to the rescheduling of LDCPs. We contend that abuse and dependence of codeine by people with chronic pain is the 'problem' constituted by the decision to reschedule LDCP. We consider the ethical and political implications of this problematisation. First, we argue that this problematisation limits the ways the LDCP consumption, particularly by people with chronic pain, can be understood. This problematisation effaces the multiple reasons people with chronic pain may consume LDCPs long term and works to naturalise notions of 'misuse'. We next argue that notions of the 'legitimate patient' and the 'illegitimate consumer' or 'abuser' are in different ways positioned as primarily responsible for managing their health. From here we argue that the problematisation of LDCPs in Australia produces codeine as the sole agent of harm in ways that background wider harm-producing social arrangements. Our analysis also suggests that the 'problem' of LDCPs unreflexively reinforces medical authoring and expertise as the primary solution. Finally, we suggest that the use of LDCPs in Australia could instead be re-problematised as an issue of 'chronic health mismanagement'. Responses to this problematisation would require a reorientation away from attempts to reduce accessibility such as up-scheduling to significantly more focus on long-term healthcare engagement for people consuming LDCPs to manage chronic health issues.

publication date

  • 2019