Quick. What’s one of the most likely geographic sources to find drugs commonly abused today? Okay, besides pot mansions. Right, the medicine cabinet. Where legal substances to abuse reside.
More than 6 million Americans abuse prescription drugs, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. One in 10 teenagers admits to abusing painkillers, such as Vicodin and Oxycontin. Painkillers cause more overdoses than cocaine and heroin combined.
"Access to prescription painkillers has never been easier," says addictions psychiatrist Donna Yi, M.D., associate chief of staff and clinical director for The Menninger Clinic and assistant professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine. "Many people start taking prescription painkillers for a legitimate reason, for pain after surgery or childbirth, or to deal with chronic pain. As the sense of euphoria and relaxation provided by the drugs gets reinforced, they become increasingly reliant on the drugs even when they no longer need them for pain."
Once hooked, patients may doctor shop to get multiple prescriptions to painkillers, forge prescriptions, order painkillers from web sites that don't require prescriptions or take a road trip to Mexico to supply their habits. Teenagers can get prescription painkillers from their parents' medicine cabinets and their friends—even dealers. Because prescription painkillers are so readily available, they don't have the stigma of illegal drugs, like heroin.
Yi adds that it may seem much easier and acceptable to swallow a pill than to find a vein, inject yourself with a drug and risk getting AIDS or overdosing. The word "heroin" instantly evokes a negative image—usually that of someone homeless and on the street.
However, like heroin, prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin and Vicodin stimulate opiate receptors in the brain, relieving pain and providing a sense of euphoria, and are highly addictive and difficult to quit without medical intervention.
For those of you interested, I have a book review of The Cult of Pharmacology I’ll put up over the weekend. It’s the basic one-stop shop for our history of drug policy and how some drugs that are worse than or chemically the same as illegal drugs are nevertheless left unchecked unless someone is stupid enough to get caught with the multiple prescriptions. Great book. We’ll see about the review.