America’s war on drugs, which has been fought in the opium fields of Afghanistan and the cocaine plantations of Columbia, will have to reinvent itself to combat what is set to be America’s biggest drug abuse problem, pharmaceuticals. One in five American’s, nearly 48 million, have used prescription drugs for non-medical purposes at least once in their lives. The current past month misuse rate among Americans is 6.2 million. According to a recent white paper by Carnevale Associates, this rate of use is already higher than the historical highs of both cocaine and heroin epidemics.
For some, the road to illicit use of prescription medications starts innocently. After a car accident, back injury, or, even, a mental/emotional breakdown a physician prescribes medication for a legitimate use. Over time, tolerance builds up so that more and more of the drug is needed until a state of dependence is reached. At this point, there is no easy way to get off the drug, and stopping can involve painful withdrawal symptoms. Some doctors have been known to become afraid and cut their patients off at this point. Patients have been known to steal prescription pads, or visit numerous doctors to get the drugs they have become addicted to.
However, contrary to popular belief, it is not older adults or any adults who are most likely to abuse pharmaceuticals. In the past decade, abuse of prescription meds among youth has been growing at an alarming first-time use rate of more than fifty percent each year. In 2002, the latest year for which there are statistics, approximately 2.5 million American’s misused prescriptions for the first time and 44% of them were under the age of 18.
Unfortunately, as the media fixes its gaze on the methamphetamine problem; and the Office of National Drug Control Policy spends much of its time focusing on Marijuana the opportunity to address the pharmaceutical addiction and abuse is being missed. While certain steps have been taken they have been tentative. The ONDCP has drawn up a strategy for addressing synthetic drugs, but no serious media campaign to educate Americans about the problem has been undertaken. Nor has any pharmaceutical company been brought to heel for manufacturing drugs with high abuse potential even when alternatives may exist.
The next battle in America’s war on drugs must draw a bead on pharmaceuticals. The ONDCP must be willing to launch the same type of hard hitting ad campaigns against prescription drug abuse as it has against, marijuana, ecstasy and cocaine. The FDA must not be afraid to sanction drug manufacturers who continue to make unsafe drugs where safe alternatives exist. Pharmaceutical manufactures must become better citizens and spend the research and development dollars to make safe and effective drugs, rather than taking the easy way out.
This new phase of the war on drugs, without easily targeted foreigners to blame for America’s drug abuse problems, will take unwavering political resolve, corporate citizenship and ingenuity. Even then it is likely to take years before the trend of increases in prescription medicine abuse and addiction can be reversed.
Common Prescription Drugs of Abuse:
Opioids: these are synthetic versions of opium. Intended for pain management opioids are the most commonly abused prescription drugs. OxyContin (oxycodone), Vicodin (hydrocodone) and Demerol (meperidine) are the most popular for abuse. Short-term side effects can include pain relief, euphoria, and drowsiness. Overdose can lead to death. Long-term use can lead to dependence or addiction.
Depressants: These drugs are commonly prescribed to treat anxiety; panic attacks, and sleep disorders. Nembutal (pentobarbital sodium), Valium (diazepam), and Xanax (alprazolam) are just three of the many drugs in this category. Immediately slow down normal brain functioning and can cause sleepiness Long-term use can lead to physical dependence and addiction.
Stimulants: Doctors may prescribe these to treat the sleeping disorder narcolepsy or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, ADHD. Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine) are two commonly prescribed stimulants. These drugs enhance brain activity and increase alertness and energy in much the same way as cocaine or methamphetamine. They increase blood pressure; speed up heart rate, and respiration. Very high doses can lead to irregular heartbeat and hyperthermia.
© 2005, David Westbrook