A Beginner’s Guide to the Rx Drug Abuse Epidemic in America: Part 3

Posted in: Drug Abuse

July 2, 2014

The beginner's guide to prescription drug abuse epidemic in America

A Beginner’s Guide to the Rx Drug Abuse Epidemic in America

Part 3: The Changing Face of Addiction

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Why have prescription medications become the new 'it' drug?

It’s not a secret anymore that the use of prescription drugs for non-medical purposes is a problem in America. What might have been a hushed topic a decade ago has become an epidemic sweeping through every demographic, with the frequency of prescription abuse superceding the frequency of illegal drug abuse.

According to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health,1 while there was a marked decrease in the use of illegal drugs, nearly one-third of people aged 12 and over who used drugs for the first time in 2009 began with prescription drugs.

It’s a shift that no one expected. Even federal anti-drug officials didn’t see this change coming. In a 2006 article from USA Today,2 Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, stated, “We were taken by surprise when we started to see a high instance of abuse of prescription drugs.” But as the number of prescription drug related deaths rises, it’s a shift that needs to be carefully examined.

One question to ask is why. Why have prescription medications become the new “it” drug? Some believe it’s because of the misguided perception of their safety.

Good Medicine

Many teens looking for a high are turning to prescription drugs because they believe they are safer than illegal drugs. “If you start with pills, it seems fairly sanitary and legitimate,” says Catherine Harnett, chief of demand reduction for the Drug Enforcement Administration, in the same 2006 USA Today article.2 “Kids have been lulled into believing that good medicine can be used recreationally.”

If a doctor prescribed it, how bad could it be? This is the mentality leading so many of America’s youth to turn to meds they find in their parents’ bathroom cabinets instead of hard drugs like heroin and cocaine. Experts believe this easy access is another cause of the spike in prescription drug abuse.

Watch Video: Why Are Prescription Drugs the New “It” Drug?

Easy Access to Prescription Drugs

A survey done in 2005 by the Partnership for A Drug Free America2 showed that 19 percent of teens reported taking prescription painkillers for non-medical uses. This percentage of teen use can be directly related to the increase in production of prescription drugs like hydrocodone and oxycodone.

The production of these two drugs for legitimate uses2 increased by over 10 million doses each between the years of 2000 and 2004. The simple increase in production of prescription drugs, even though intended for rightful use, creates more opportunity for wrongful use.

The New Face of Addiction

With the increased accessibility and misperception of safety, the face of addiction is changing. You may still think of a very specific image when you think of addiction. The stereotype of a “drug user” characteristically brings up certain adjectives—homeless, isolated, deviant, violent, mentally unstable, undereducated, etc. If this stereotype ever accurately described a typical drug user, it certainly does not anymore.

As the conversation about drug addiction moves to the spotlight, we’re seeing that today’s typical drug user is anything but a stereotype.

A 2013 article in Diablo Magazine3 quotes Linda Turnbull, executive director of Teen Esteem, a non-profit that partners with high schools in the San Francisco area. In Turnbull’s words: “It used to be you could predict who might have a drug problem. Something has changed.”

Watch Video: What Is the Typical Stereotype of Drug User?

It used to be you could predict who might have a drug problem. Something has changed.

Teens and Prescription Drugs

Maybe the most notable group of prescription drug abusers is American teens. The rise of prescription drug use among teens across the country is quite alarming, with drug fatalities doubling between 2000 and 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.4 And it’s not just the typical troubled teens who are using.

The 2009 World Drug Report by the United Nations3 states, “Many of the individuals using prescription drugs for non-medical purposes do not participate in a subculture of illicit drug use, and would not otherwise experience problems with compulsive and harmful drugs.” Some of these teens using prescription drugs today are overachievers in popular circles dealing with the pressures of our fast-paced society. They are self-medicating2 undiagnosed issues of depression or anxiety—and while they are doing so, they are quick to help their friends by sharing these mood-altering drugs.

A trend has developed where teens bring plastic bags2 full of pills to their friends—called “trail mix”—assembled by raiding the family medicine shelf, an activity also known as “pharming.”

Another quick and easy way to share pills with friends is at a “pharm party.” At these gatherings, teens dump all their pills into a bowl and then choose at random what to take. This trend2 caught officials’ attention in the early 2000s and has continued to rise over the years. And the sharing doesn’t end with teens.

Mothers and Prescription Drugs

Another group experiencing the effects of the rapid rise of prescription drug abuse is women, specifically mothers. In 2008, more than 18 million women ages 26 and over reported using prescription drugs for non-medical uses.5 And how are the pills spreading through this group? More sharing.

According to a survey done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education, nearly 29 percent of women said they borrowed or shared prescription drugs.5

Sharing prescription painkillers at a PTA meeting or muscle relaxants over a play date have become too common under that all-too-familiar blanket of false safety.

The Elderly and Prescription Drugs

Even the elderly are not immune to the surge in prescription drug abuse. In fact, they may be at even greater risk.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration states that nearly three in 10 people between the ages of 57 to 85 are on at least five prescriptions.

In a 2011 article from The Partnership at DrugFree.org,6 Angela Conway of the South Miami Hospital’s Addiction Treatment Center states, “There are physical, psychological and social factors that make elderly people more vulnerable to addiction.”

One reason they are more vulnerable comes from the abundance of medications the elderly are consistently put on. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration states that nearly three in 10 people6 between the ages of 57 to 85 are on at least five prescriptions.

With a plethora of medications around them every day, it’s no surprise to realize the danger they are in. And with rates of hospital admissions for conditions related to prescription drug use in the elderly rising 96 percent6 between 1997 and 2008, we need to work on preventative methods immediately.

Prescription Drug Addiction Is a Disease

What we need to realize is that addiction is a disease. It doesn’t discriminate based on ethnicity, gender or age. When we stereotype, we run the major risk of overlooking those in need of treatment. We’re also creating a stigma of drug abuse that people might be afraid to be associated with. Many people abusing prescription drugs are upstanding citizens. They are successful professionals, mothers, kids and grandparents who are afraid to come clean about their addiction because of how society views addicts.

What can we do about this issue? What’s causing and complicating the use of drugs in our society? The answer is not a simple one, but it lends itself to a few direct explanations. As we take a look at the misuse, overabundance and abuse of drugs, we have to examine the emotional and psychological contributors to the problem. We have to start talking more about mental health.

This is part 3 of 5. Click here to read Part 4: The Mental Health Factor

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5


[1] “Prescription Drug Abuse.” Office of National Drug Control Policy. WhiteHouse.gov. Accessed November/December 2013.

[2] “Prescription drugs find a place in teen culture.” Donna Leinwand. USA Today. Updated June 3, 2006. Accessed November/December 2013.

[3] “The New Face of Addiction.” Lisen Stromberg. Diablo Magazine. DiabloMag.com. Posted March 2013. Accessed November/December 2013.

[4] Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: April 16, 2012. Vol.61. “Vital Signs: Unintentional Injury Deaths Among Persons Aged 0-19 Years—United States, 2000-2009.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC.gov. Accessed November/December 2013.

[5] “Moms on Drugs: The Prescription Pill Epidemic.” Andrea Barbalich. Parents.com. Accessed November/December 2013.

[6] Elderly at Risk for Prescription Drug Abuse.” Join Together Staff. Posted September 12, 2011. The Partnership at DrugFree.org. DrugFree.org. Accessed November/Decermber 2013.

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