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Prescription Drug Addiction in the United States

Prescription drug addiction in the United States is considered by many to be an epidemic. This is largely because cases of addiction to these medications are not only alarmingly prevalent, they are also growing in size and scope each year. In recent years there has been a trend in the U.S. where doctors are readily supplying prescription medications to just about anyone; including medications that can be extremely addictive like analgesics, anti-depressants, sedatives and sleep aids. These include drugs like Oxycodone and Valium, to name just two of hundreds of different types of prescription drugs that people frequently abuse. And while some of these addictions are formed by taking legitimately prescribed drugs, most are developed by illicit use as a result of the diversion of prescriptions. Understanding the scale of this problem is critical to creating prevention and treatment measures to help those suffering from a prescription drug addiction.

Prescription drug addiction occurs when a person uses a federally controlled substance that was not prescribed to them, or uses a legitimate prescription in a manner inconsistent with its labeling. For many people, this can come as a surprise. For instance, one of the most common ways to abuse a prescription drug is to crush it and snort it. Because this is not how the drug is labeled for use, a person who does this commits a felony – even if the prescription belongs to them and is otherwise legitimate.

Common prescription drugs of abuse usually involve some type of opiate, but can include benzodiazepines and other substances. Drugs that are often diverted for sale and use on the street include Vicodin, Percocet, Oxycontin, Morphine, Fentanyl, Methadone, Valium, Xanax, Ritalin, Adderall, and many others. These drugs can be ingested, snorted, smoked and in some cases injected intravenously.

Initially prescription drugs might cause a sense of confusion, dizziness, euphoria and numbness, but with continued use tolerance will develop. This refers to the body’s natural defense to the drug – to limit its ability to affect the user. As a result users will need to take more and more of the drug in order to achieve the desired effect. Physical dependence develops very quickly in a scenario like this, and full-blown addiction to these substances occurs shortly after with continued use.

Many people wrongly assume that because prescription drugs are provided by doctors and pharmacists that they are safe to abuse. This is a dangerous way of thinking as these drugs can be fatal when not used by the person whom they were intended for in the proper prescribed manner. According to Dr. Jane Carlisle Maxwell of the University of Texas;

“In 2004, reported that there were nearly 1.3 million emergency department visits associated with drug misuse or abuse, and nearly half a million involved non-medical use of pharmaceuticals.” (1)

Emergencies that involve the abuse of prescription drugs include requests for detox or treatment services for addiction, severe physiological complications such as respiratory distress (especially when related to use of opiates like morphine and Oxycontin), seizures, vomiting, insomnia, hallucinations, cardiovascular issues, psychoses, coma and many other life-threatening disorders and illnesses. Users also frequently overdose on illicitly obtained prescription drugs – sometimes fatally.

The most troubling aspect of prescription drug abuse and addiction in the U.S. is the fact that it is so widespread. The age of people who abuse prescription drugs is not limited to any particular demographic, possibly explaining at least part of the epidemic status of this problem. Another explanation is the easy availability of these drugs. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that;

“In 2009, 16 million Americans age 12 and older had taken a prescription pain reliever, tranquilizer, stimulant, or sedative for nonmedical purposes at least once in the year prior to being surveyed.” (2)

However, it’s difficult to imagine that the data used to compile these figures took into account that potentially few respondents would actually admit to a felony offense such as prescription drug abuse, misuse or diversion – even with a promise of confidentiality or anonymity. This is especially true among the youngest respondents. Therefore, it’s likely that these statistics are even higher than estimated. In fact, Medline Plus reports that overall, 20% of people in the United States have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons. (3)

Efforts to prevent the diversion and abuse of prescription drugs are significant, although the results they produce are questionable. Most resources are put toward law enforcement measures that target distribution rings, illegal internet medication services, and street level possession. However, there are also substantial efforts being put forth in educating elementary, high school and college students, as well as rigorous programs for those people in the health care industry who are associated with prescription medications. For example, in a U.S. Department of Justice guide for pharmacy staff workers, pharmacists, technicians and others, staff is reminded that they can be held civilly and criminally liable if they dispense a prescription that is then abused or diverted. The publication points out how fraudulent prescriptions are usually obtained:

“Pharmacists should be aware of the various kinds of fraudulent prescriptions which may be presented for dispensing:

*Legitimate prescription pads are stolen from physicians’ offices and prescriptions are written for fictitious patients.

*Some patients, in an effort to obtain additional amounts of legitimately prescribed drugs, alter the physician’s prescription.

*Some drug abusers will have prescription pads from a legitimate doctor printed with a different call back number that is answered by an accomplice to verify the prescription.

*Some drug abusers will call in their own prescriptions and give their own telephone number as a call back confirmation.

*Computers are often used to create prescriptions for nonexistent doctors or to copy legitimate doctors’ prescriptions.” (4)

But despite these and significant other resources and money dedicated to prevention methods, an astonishing amount of prescription drugs make their way onto the illicit drug market every year. The demand for these drugs is ever-present despite the fact that the consequences of being caught in possession of diverted drugs are severe. Because prescriptions are federally regulated, any crime related to their abuse or distribution is considered a felony. This means that if you give your friend a painkiller from a surgery you had three months ago because they have a headache, you have just committed a felony. Felons are not permitted to vote, cannot hold public office, cannot obtain a passport and are barred from owning weapons. Additionally, penalties for prescription drug related offenses include forfeiture of assets and property, fines, probation, mandatory prison sentences, license suspensions, and the inability to gain employment in a large number of businesses, organizations and government agencies that refuse to hire convicted felons.

The risks and consequences associated with prescription drug abuse and prescription drug addiction are severe and potentially life-altering. If you or someone you love is struggling with a painkiller, sedative, stimulant or other drug problem, the time to reach out for help is now. Call the number at the top of your screen for a free, confidential consultation. The rest of your life may very well depend upon what you do at this moment.

(1) Maxwell, Jane Carlisle, Ph.D. Trends in the Abuse of Prescription Drugs The University of Texas
Accessed 09/13/2011

(2) National Institute on Drug Abuse Prescription Medications
Accessed 09/13/2011

(3) Medline Plus Prescription Drug Abuse
Accessed 09/13/2011

(4) U.S. Department of Justice Office of Diversion Control A Pharmacist’s Guide to Prescription Fraud
February 2000 Vol. 1 Issue 1
Accessed 09/13/2011

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