By Reginald Hughes
Prescription drug abuse has become one of the United States’ largest and most wide spread drug problems, affecting many Americans both directly and indirectly. Some of the commonly abused prescription drugs types include CNS (central nervous system) depressants, which slow brain activity and are commonly used for anxiety and sleep disorders, and stimulants, that increase attention and alertness and are used to treat things like ADHD and depression. Some prescription CNS depressants include: Xanax, Valium, ProSom, and Ambien, and some prescription stimulants include: Adderall, Dexadrine, Ritalin, and Concerta. However, the big culprits behind the surge of prescription drug abuse are opioids.
Prescription opioids mimic endorphins that naturally occur in the body to relieve pain. They are given to patients for severe pain from things like serious injuries or pain that is caused by health conditions like cancer. Opioids are also being prescribed for other kinds of chronic long term pain despite there being little evidence to show they are effective for that kind of pain. When taken for a short time as prescribed, opioids can be safely used to treat pain. However, when taken for long periods of time or in incorrect doses the risk of dependence and addiction become prevalent . Some prescription opioids include: OxyContin, Percodan, Vicodin, Percocet, morphine, and fentanyl.
Since 1999, sales of prescription opioids have nearly quadrupled, with primary care physicians accounting for almost half of the opioid pain pills that are prescribed, but the amount of pain reported by Americans has not changed. With the increase of opioid distribution, reported deaths due to opioid related overdoses have also jumped from 4,030 in 1999, to 16,007 in 2012.
Prescription opioid abuse can also lead to heroin use. Heroin can be easier to obtain and gives a stronger high. Heroin is also highly addictive, like other prescription opioids, but the risk of overdose is increased due to the lack of control over the amount and purity of the drug being used.
One of the deadliest opioid drugs that has recently become more commonly abused is fentanyl — a synthetic opioid that is used for cancer treatment and as an anesthetic. One of the most concerning problems with fentanyl is the sheer amount of it that has begun to circulate illegally. It is easier and cheaper to manufacture than heroin because it is synthetic, and large amounts are being made by Mexican drug cartels and drug labs in the United States. Some who purchase fentanyl believe they are buying regular prescription opioids, or heroin, and users can fatally overdose after using it. Some who use it find that they can no longer get high from heroin because of how potent fentanyl is and the tolerance that the body builds up from using it. Fentanyl has begun to surpass heroin as the most common drug involved in fatal opioid overdoses and has had one of the deadliest year-over-year surges for any drug in United States history, with an increase of 72.2 percent from 2014 to 2015. Fentanyl is much stronger than regular heroin or other prescription opioids and can be up to 100 times more potent than morphine. It is so strong that officers wear protective gloves to search for it, because even a small amount getting through the skin can be fatal.
Some cases of high profile celebrity deaths due to overdoses of prescription drugs have brought attention to the issue in in recent years. On April 21st 2016, musician and entertainer Prince died from an overdose of the opioid fentanyl, shocking many. It was later revealed that he had been addicted to the prescription Percocet decades prior to his death. Additionally, actor Heath Ledger died on January 22nd, 2008, from an overdose after taking a combination of the opioids OxyContin and Vicodin; the CNS depressants Valium and Xanax; and the sleeping medications Temazepam and Unisom. Though Ledger did take the correct dosages for each, the combination of the drugs proved to be fatal, showing how dangerous even unintentional misuse of prescription drugs can be.
The issue of prescription opioid addiction has become much more socially prominent as the number of people affected by it has increased, but the persistence of the problem remains and the question of what to do about it is a hard one to answer.
Header photo from emaze.com