While drug addiction is an issue which is at the forefront of American society right now, most people don’t realize that prescription drug abuse, not illegal drugs, is the most common form of addiction. When most people hear the words drug abuse, they think of drugs like heroin, cocaine and marijuana but not prescription drugs. This is probably due to depictions of people who struggle with drug abuse in the media, which usually depict drug abuse as a problem for criminals, gang members and the mentally ill. However, illicit drugs actually only make up a small part of the drug abuse issue in this country. A majority of those struggling with drug abuse are using prescription drugs that are more easily found behind the counter of a pharmacy than they are on a street corner.
Prescription drug abuse has become the most pressing issue in America, easily surpassing the problems which are brought about by illicit drugs. While there are numerous types of prescription drugs which have a potential for abuse, the two most common types are opioid painkillers like Percocet and Vicodin and benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Valium. Both of these classes of drugs are widely prescribed and have a very high potential for addiction, which has caused many people to find themselves struggling with prescription drug abuse. While they may seem different, the reality is that addiction to prescription drugs is essentially the same as addiction to illicit drugs in most ways. It can ruin lives, cause a myriad of health problems and leave people fundamentally changed for the rest of their lives. This is why addressing this issue now is crucial, as the longer we wait as a society to change the more people this problem is going to impact.
The problem with prescription drug abuse is actually two-fold and can be categorized into two classes. First, there are those who are prescribed these types of medications for legitimate medical reasons such as pain, anxiety and insomnia. These people begin taking these medications because they went to their doctor with specific medical concerns and were prescribed certain medications, only to find themselves becoming dependent or addicted to them after prolonged use. Many people who fall into this class had no idea when they began taking their medications that they could possibly lead to addiction and are shocked and dismayed when they realize they are not struggling with prescription drug abuse. The other class of those struggling with prescription drug abuse are those who begin taking these medications recreationally and end up dependent or addicted to them. Often times this can occur when another family member is given a prescription by a doctor but does not finish the medications, leaving an opportunity for another family member to access them and begin taking them without a prescription. Both of these situations are affecting millions of Americans and the widespread use and prescribing of these medications are leading to continued growth of prescription drug abuse across the country.
Prescription drug abuse can come as a surprise to many
One of the most insidious characteristics of prescription drug abuse is that fact that is can catch many people off guard. Unlike illicit drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine a majority of people who end up addicted to prescription drugs begin taking them not recreationally but for legitimate medical reasons. Prescriptions for drugs like opioid pain killers and benzodiazepines are given to patients for a number of medical reasons which can range from somewhat minor to quite serious, but many times those patients who begin taking them are not aware of these drugs’ high potential for both abuse and dependence.
It is also important to differentiate between drug dependence and drug abuse. Drug dependence is typically categorized as a situation where someone who is taking a specific medication becomes physically depended on it, experiencing uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous withdrawal symptoms when they do not take the drug. Benzodiazepines and opioid pain medications are both notorious for their potential to cause a physical dependence for someone who takes them for a prolonged period of time. The longer someone take these drugs the more significant the withdrawal symptoms can get, but sometimes these symptoms can arise even after a few weeks of sustained use of the medications. This situation can be quite traumatic and worrisome for many people as they may take an opioid painkiller for a few weeks to deal with a surgery only to find themselves physically dependent on them once they and their doctor decide that it is time to come off of them. While these withdrawal symptoms can be managed using a variety of techniques such as slowly decreasing the amount of medication someone is taking instead of stopping it all together, it can lead to another problem which is prescription drug abuse.
Prescription drug abuse, unlike dependence, goes further than simply involving a physical dependence of a medication. Those who abuse medications are typically struggling with not only this physical dependence but also a mental addiction to the medication which is considerably harder to treat and overcome. Drugs like benzodiazepines and opioid pain killers have a euphoric effect on many people, causing an increase in feelings of happiness or satisfaction. This euphoric effect is the main reason why these medications have such a strong potential for addiction. As people take them for longer periods of time they come to rely on them simply to make them feel normal, and can become irritable, depressed or anxious when they do not have them. This situation can become even more desperate if someone who is abusing their prescription medication gets cut off from their doctor, many people turn to illicit street drugs to replace them.
The medicine cabinet: a common source of danger
The other situation which commonly causes prescription drug abuse is when people begin to take other people’s prescription medications for recreational use. Sometimes when individuals are given medications like opioid pain killers or benzodiazepines they find that they do not work or they do not like the effects of the medication and don’t take all of them, leaving them in their medicine cabinet. This can be dangerous as other members of the family may find them and decide to take them recreationally, causing a very high potential for addiction. This situation commonly occurs with teenagers and young adults who are experimenting with drugs and find these very powerful medications in their parent’s medicine cabinets.
Unfortunately, situations like this can lead to disaster as taking these medications recreationally has a very high possibility of causing either an addiction or a dependency. Unlike those who are taking the medication that was prescribed to them by a doctor, those who take another’s medication does not have either the medical supervision of a doctor to monitor the effects the drug has on them. They also usually have to turn to buying these drugs off the street from others once they run out of their initial supply, meaning their use is more likely to progress to other illicit drugs like heroin which is typically cheaper and easier to buy on the street than prescription drugs.
While this situation is quite common and can cause devastating addictions, there are some steps which can help prevent it. If you are prescribed a potentially addictive medication by your doctor and do not take them for one reason or another, consult your doctor and ask them if you should destroy or discard the remaining medication to prevent any potential for theft or misuse. If you have these types of medications but are continuing to take them, it’s often times a good idea to invest in a medication lockbox to make sure that only you can access your medication.
Prescription drug abuse: the leading contributor to the opioid epidemic
The situations of prescription drug abuse discussed above have led to a desperate situation in America; the opioid epidemic. Across the country there are millions of individuals who are addicted to opioids, both prescribed and illicit. One of the most dangerous parts about these drugs in particular is their potential to cause deadly overdoses. Both opioids and benzodiazepines can cause fatal overdoses by slowing down a person’s respiratory system and eventually stopping it altogether. This danger is even more apparent when the two types of medications are combined, which is becoming more and more common due to the widespread availability of these medications to addicts.
Fatal overdoses due to opioids has in fact risen about 400% since 1999, to levels now which are unprecedented. This has come about in part because of the massive rise in the number of opioid and benzodiazepine prescriptions which are being written. The numbers of these prescriptions has been on a steady rise for decades and has reached a point now where some states are filling more prescriptions for opioid pain killers than they have citizens. Not only is this increase in prescriptions causing more and more people to become dependent and potentially addicted through taking them as prescribed, but it is also flooding the black market with more and more medications which is driving the prices down and making it easier for those who are taking them to get their hands on the drug illicitly.
While increased attention to this issue has made doctors more aware of the potential dangers of overprescribing medications, the problem is still quite pervasive as so many people are now dealing with full-blown drug addictions. The solution is going to have to be multi-faceted in the sense that doctors are going to have to continue to be aware of overprescribing medications like opioids and benzodiazepines in order to reduce the number of new individuals who become addicted or dependent on prescription drugs, but there also needs to be more easily acceptable treatment options for those who are already struggling with prescription drug abuse.
The problem is that it is much more difficult to treat someone that is addicted to prescription drugs than it is to get them addicted in the first place. While the addiction can be triggered by something as innocuous as a quick visit to the doctor and a few flicks of the pen by a doctor, helping someone to recover from that addiction often takes months or years of intensive treatment. Things like inpatient and outpatient substance abuse facilities, when combined with support groups and individual counseling can go a long way towards helping someone overcome their drug abuse but it doesn’t work for everyone. The fact of the matter is that while treatment is a crucial part of the process for addressing this issue, perhaps the most effective and important aspect of the solution is making sure that we are exposing as few people as possible to potentially devastating issues that come along with prescription drug abuse.