The abuse of prescription drugs has become the biggest drug abuse problem in Western Culture today. It has been estimated that within the United States alone, more than 15 million people abuse prescription drugs- more than the combined number who reported abusing cocaine, hallucinogens, inhalants and heroin. That is pretty staggering, and rather unknown as far as our culture goes. When it comes to the idea of drug abuse, most people think of the illegal ones, such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, meth, and so on. But few stop to consider things like painkillers and other kinds of powerful prescription drugs. Sure, the abuse of these is known, but as for the grand scope of it, few realize how much of an epidemic it really is.
The problem with these prescription drugs is that they are legal. They are given by doctors, people who are trusted. They are given for problems that are real, usually chronic pain, and they do remedy those problems, usually very well. But people do not know the potency of these drugs and do not realize that an addiction can form to them.
Every day in the US, 2,500 youth (12 to 17) abuse a prescription pain reliever for the first time. In 2005, 4.4 million teenagers (aged 12 to 17) in the US admitted to taking prescription painkillers, and 2.3 million took a prescription stimulant such as Ritalin. 2.2 million abused over-the-counter drugs such as cough syrup. The average age for first-time users is now 13 to 14. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, teens who abuse prescription drugs are twice as likely to use alcohol, five times more likely to use marijuana, and twelve to twenty times more likely to use illegal street drugs such as heroin, Ecstasy and cocaine than teens who do not abuse prescription drugs. It is safe to say that prescription drugs can be classified as gateway drugs.
Depressants, opioids and antidepressants are responsible for more overdose deaths (45%) than cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and amphetamines (39%) combined. Of the 1.4 million drug-related emergency room admissions in 2005, 598,542 were associated with abuse of pharmaceuticals alone or with other drugs. In 2007, the Drug Enforcement Administration found that abuse of the painkiller Fentanyl killed more than 1,000 people that year in the US. It is thirty to fifty times more powerful than heroin.
Tolerance and Addiction
In the case of painkillers, what happens is that the body forms a tolerance to them and the pain that is being remedied seems to not be as affected by the drugs as it used to in the beginning. This is similar to the trend that people who try illegal drugs experience: the first few highs are great, but they seem to go downhill after that because the mind and the body get used to it. So, more drugs are needed in order to try and re-create the first high again. This is commonly referred to as "chasing the dragon". The same kind of thing happens with prescription painkillers. The body builds a tolerance to their presence and more are needed to create the same effect.
Another strange thing that happens with painkillers is that, when the bodily addiction forms, the mind starts to manufacture phantom pain that is not real, not connected to anything, to make the person feel like they need more painkillers in order to make it go away. When taken, the high lasts a much smaller amount of time so that more is "needed" to be taken in order to remedy the ghost pain that the mind is manufacturing.
So, as we can see, pharmaceutical drugs are as potent, if not more so, than illegal street drugs. The epidemic of addiction is growing and people, especially the doctors that prescribe these drugs, need to be more aware of the consequences and take actions and precautions accordingly.