Prescription drug abuse is the number one drug problem in the United States. In 2005, opioid painkillers accounted for almost 40 percent of all fatal drug overdoses. More people abuse prescription drugs than the total number of those who use cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens and inhalants. In most states, prescription drug overdoses exceed vehicle deaths. Experts call it an epidemic.
But the prescription drug abuse epidemic begins far before addiction. It begins with pain.
What are Prescription Drugs?
There are thousands of prescription drugs available today. Many of them are effective for treating illnesses, however, there are a group of drugs known as painkillers that are creating the epidemic of addictions we currently are witnessing. The average person can use these drugs without becoming addicted if they following dosing directions very closely, but there are others who deliberately abuse these drugs, and this is where the problem begins.
Three types of substances are encompassed by prescription drugs:
- Painkillers: Most are based on opium, the same base as have morphine, heroin, codeine and methadone.
- Central nervous system depressants: Most are common barbiturates, seconded by benzodiazepines and non-benzodiazepines. CNS depressants are dangerous combinations with alcohol.
- Stimulants: Prescribed to treat ADHD, stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall may be abused by college students and professional athletes.
The Steady Rise of Prescription Drug Abuse Popularity
Prescription drugs were synthesized to meet the demands of the 21st century. Many were synthesized in the 1980s and 1990s.
Painkillers were once used to alleviate short-term pains caused by surgery, accidents, and so forth. After several short-term, short-sighted studies claimed that long-term moderate opioid use was non-addictive, doctors began prescribing painkillers for dozens of ailments: back pain, arthritis, carpel tunnel syndrome, etc. To no one’s surprise, the United States now consumes 80 percent of the world’s painkillers.
CNS depressants are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. Far controversially, they are even fed to juvenile delinquents to mask their tendencies towards violence. CNS depressants are often implicated in fatal overdoses involving alcohol and other medication combinations.
Stimulants, such as Ritalin, exploded in popularity hanging onto the coat tails of ADHD. They are also used to treat narcolepsy.
The Center for Disease Control reports that the quantity of prescription narcotics sold to medical facilities in the United States quadrupled from 1999 to 2010. Now, most of the nation’s narcotics are not in meth labs or crack houses, but in medicine cabinets. And getting to them is all too easy.
Prescription Narcotics Use in Modern America
Expert studies report that half of those who abuse prescription drugs obtain them for free for family or friends. Of the rest, only five percent have to purchase the drugs from a street narcotics dealer.
In other words, unlike illicit drugs, prescription narcotics cannot be tracked through border crossings, mobile labs and street dealers. They have a simple route: from doctor to patient to addict. What is worst is that studies show that physicians are far more likely to prescribe narcotics if asked by patients. Yet doctors also find themselves backed into a corner, since insurance companies are more likely to cover medication than alternative forms of treatment.
Public perception fosters this skewed idea. Almost half of America’s youth believe that prescription narcotics are safer and less addictive than black market substances. Yet Fentanyl, for example, is a prescribed painkiller 30 times as potent as heroin.
Addicts and abusers commonly obtain multiple prescriptions through a tactic known as “doctor shopping.” Although most states have a Prescription Drug Monitor Program, an electronic data surveillance program that flags doctor shoppers, only 16 states require health care providers to utilize it.
The resulting disproportionate use of prescription drugs in America is staggering. The nation consumes 80 percent of the world’s oxycodone and 99 percent of its hydrocodone. As a result, the CDC estimates that every day 2,500 high school youth abuse a prescription drug for the first time.
Unlike cocaine and other illicit substances, the problem of prescription drugs isn’t limited to certain age groups or races. The problem dominates far too many suburban and rural communities. Use is concentrated in the American Northwest, Southwest and Appalachia. Although men make up the majority of fatal overdoses, growth rates among women are substantially higher.
The executive director of Trust for America’s Health estimates that prescription drug abuse costs $53.4 billion – and growing – every year.
Prescribed Drugs as Gateway Narcotics
According to research conducted at the University of Columbia, teens who abuse prescription drugs are:
- Twice as likely to drink alcohol
- Five times more likely to use marijuana
- Twice as likely to abuse illicit drugs
Another study says that 80 percent of heroin abusers previously used prescription drugs.
In America, and around the world, the rise of prescription drug abuse has become an epidemic. The most effective method for bringing down these statistics is through awareness and education. When that fails, professional rehabilitation facilities are available to help addicts overcome their addictions and return to functionality in society.