Prescription Painkillers Trail Only Marijuana In Abuse Rates

bottle of prescription opioids

Prescription drugs are a fixture in the lives of a large percentage of the United States population. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 48 percent of Americans are on at least one prescription medication, while 11 percent are taking five or more prescription drugs every month. Especially common among these drugs is Vicodin, an opiate painkiller which is now the number one most commonly prescribed medication in the U.S. In 2010 alone more than 130 million prescriptions were written for Vicodin.

Prescription painkillers can be enormously effective when used appropriately and under a doctor’s supervision, but they are also astonishingly addictive. Drugs such as Vicodin and Oxycontin are household names due to the fact that so many people across the country take them for pain treatment, but what is less commonly known is that both are essentially nothing more than synthetic formulations of the opium-derived heroin. Their use has become astonishingly widespread and in fact has overtaken heroin, cocaine and other drugs in the rankings of the most commonly abused drugs.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), prescription painkillers are now second only to marijuana for the prevalence of drug abuse in America. To get an idea of just how common these drugs have become, consider the fact that 22 million people have started using them non-medically since 2002. Some of these people are current drug users and addicts who are simply looking for their next high, but many others are patients who were initially prescribed the drugs.

A patient taking painkillers will often build up a physiological resistance to the drug, while at the same time developing an emotional dependence on the relief and sense of well-being that the drug causes, and will subsequently begin taking more and more pills in order to achieve the same feeling. Some may even learn to crush them in order to snort or inject the drug and get a stronger high. Once the bottle runs out or the doctor stops writing a prescription, the individual is compelled to resort to desperate measures to avoid the crippling symptoms of withdrawal. He or she may engage in “doctor shopping” by visiting several different physicians with the goal of obtaining additional prescriptions, or the individual might begin buying the drugs on the street.

Solutions To The Prescription Painkiller Abuse Epidemic

The Director of SAMHSA was quoted in a US News & World Report story as saying that having even two percent of the population using such drugs is a serious problem and that the Administration is actively working to find solutions to handle the situation. These are focused primarily on two areas: public education to increase awareness and prevent prescription drug abuse; and tighter restrictions on who can have access to these drugs. The first aspect of the approach is vitally necessary due to the simple fact that a large percentage of the population — even including many of the people who abuse prescription drugs — do not realize how dangerous they are. Because they have received approval from the Food and Drug Administration and are obtained by getting a doctor’s prescription, many people share the mistaken assumption that the drugs are somehow safe.

As far as restricting access is concerned, one of the most successful actions so far has been for the individual states to implement prescription drug monitoring programs which track the doctors who write prescriptions and the patients who receive them. This makes it easier to detect doctors who are dispensing unusually large numbers of drugs and patients who are engaged in doctor shopping. Programs such as this have been successfully established in former prescription drug abuse hotbeds such as Arizona, Kentucky, West Virginia and Florida. For example, Arizona has now dropped from 3rd to 6th in the SAMHSA rankings. One promising aspect of the recent report is that prescription drug abuse did not increase in any state and actually dropped in ten states including Arizona. It is to be hoped that next year’s edition of the report features even better news.



Sue Birkenshaw

Sue has worked in the addiction field with the Narconon network for three decades. She has developed and administered drug prevention programs worldwide and worked with numerous drug rehabilitation centers over the years. Sue is also a fine artist and painter, who enjoys traveling the world which continues to provide unlimited inspiration for her work. You can follow Sue on Twitter, or connect with her on LinkedIn.