In recent years prescription drug abuse has reached near epidemic proportions in the US. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), about 3 percent of the U.S population engaged in non-medical use of psychotherapeutic drugs in 2006. Recent studies show that these numbers are rising steadily every year.
The term “psychotherapeutic drug” is applied to medicines traditionally used in medical treatment to alter a patient’s mood or state of mind. Drugs that fall into this category include pain relievers, depressants, and stimulants, among others. Such medicines are typically prescribed for conditions ranging from physical pain to mental or emotional distress. When used correctly, psychotherapeutic drugs are very effective in reducing pain and discomfort that a patient might not be able to endure on their own. The problem arises when such drugs are used incorrectly.
In 2008 testimony before a Senate subcommittee, Medical Epidemiologist Dr. Leonard J. Paulozzi of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that more than 22,000 American lives are lost each year due to accidental drug overdoses, and that unintentional overdose deaths are statistically related to the increasing use of prescription drugs, especially opioid painkillers.
This point was underscored by Andrew Kolodny, chairman of psychiatry at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City. “Prescribing practices have changed to the point where physicians are much more liberal, largely through pharmaceutical marketing. We’ve trained a whole generation of physicians to believe that if you prescribe opiates to patients who have legitimate pain that there’s little or no risk of addiction or misuse.”
Easy access to prescription drugs from legitimate physicians is just one of the issues. Illegal prescribing by unscrupulous physicians, and illegal distribution by unscrupulous pharmacies, is also on the rise. Prescription drug abusers are often able to obtain whatever prescription they want if they are willing to pay the price, and some pharmacists have gained a reputation of filling such prescriptions without question.
With the advent of online pharmacies a prescription is often not needed. According to a 2009 study by OpSec Security, a firm monitoring pharmaceutical counterfeiting, the availability of online pharmacies that do not require a prescription has risen 65% in the last two years. While highly controlled substances are generally not available online, many of the drugs that are available are very dangerous when taken in high doses or in combination with other drugs.
Perhaps one of the most alarming facts concerning prescription drug abuse is the frequency of use among high school age children. According once again to NIDA, almost ten percent of high school seniors were taking the powerful opiate Vicodin, and more than five percent were taking the highly addictive opiate OxyContin. Given the well known statistic that early drug use greatly increases the likelihood of developing a pathological dependence later in life, we can begin to understand why addiction is increasing at such alarming rates in young adults.
One often overlooked aspect of prescription drug abuse is its link to illegal drug use. Prescription drug abuse is still generally looked upon as being something separate and above the use of common street drugs. But prescription drugs tend to be more expensive than their street counterparts, and as drug users become more and more tolerant they tend to drift toward the use of cheaper and more easily available substitutes.
One persistent problem with prescription drug abuse is the difficulty many medical practitioners have in recognizing the problem in their patients. Generalists tend to focus on the presenting problems of their patients and often overlook hidden or suppressed difficulties. Specialists are reluctant to offer an opinion outside the scope of their specialty. Substance abuse problems may go unrecognized for years until a crisis brings the issue to the forefront. Unfortunately this crisis may often take the form of an overdose or other life-threatening episode that might have been avoided by earlier detection.
Prescription drug abuse is no longer the invisible problem it was just a few years ago. Due in part to the studies mentioned above and in part to the recent highly publicized and deeply tragic prescription drug related deaths of several well known celebrities, prescription drug abuse is now recognized as one of the more serious health problems we are facing. The more awareness that we give to the problem, the better our chances of helping those in need, and the better our chances of avoiding the loss of life through misuse of drugs that were intended to heal.