Prescription Drug Abuse Continues To Rise
> 3/6/2008 9:03:53 AM

International polling and research trends all seem to point in the same direction: rates of illegal drug use and abuse have not seen any significant increases in the last decade and, in many cases, numbers have dropped slightly. The use of prescription drugs for non-medical purposes, on the other hand, continues to rise. Some experts have gone so far as to make the dramatic assertion that pharmaceuticals are about to eclipse street narcotics as the largest player in the international drug trade. According to a 2006 report by the International Narcotics Control Board, the recreational use and abuse of pharmaceutical painkillers, sedatives and stimulants is now more common than that of any illicit substance other than marijuana.

To see the trend embodied we turn to what is (and most likely will continue to be) the most reliable drug use barometer: the American college campus. In keeping with larger trends, illicit drug use by U.S. college students declined in 2006 for the fourth year in a row. But prescription drug use by the same students shows no signs of slowing down by any estimate. The fact that 7.4% of current college students reported using Vicodin recreationally at least once in 2004 hints at a far larger and very worrisome pattern. In addition to risking abuse, overdose and even system failure by taking medications not intended for recreation, students open to taking these drugs are also significantly more likely to smoke, binge drink and use marijuana on a regular basis.

Vicodin, the most popular pharmaceutical of abuse, is an extremely effective painkiller, usually prescribed in small or moderate doses to patients who've been through major surgery. It's not meant to be taken for extended periods and it is certainly not intended for recreational use, particularly in combination with alcohol. Addicts report that habits develop within days and that quitting Vicodin is just as difficult as kicking a heroin habit, if not more so. The problem has gone public. Among the better-known personalities who've dealt with Vicodin addictions: radio personality Rush Limbaugh, MVP quarterback Brett Favre, television star Matthew Perry, and musician Courtney Love. These drugs are also easier to acquire in much of the world, especially in developing countries. While one can hardly order quantities of heroin online, many (illegal) sites offer controlled pharmaceuticals. Much of this trade occurs outside the U.S. where regulations are often far lighter, but the estimated number of Americans abusing prescription drugs has more than doubled in the last 15 years.

The most significant problem underlying these trends involves popular perception. On the whole, surveyed students believe that the recreational use of prescription meds like Vicodin, Oxycontin, and Ritalin carries less social stigma and fewer potential health problems than that of street drugs like cocaine and heroin despite the very close functional similarities between the substances. In many cases (depending on chemical purity and method of ingestion), synthetic opiates may actually prove more intense and potentially deadly than the "real" stuff. How can we revise the casual eye with which so many teens and young adults view these very powerful medications? Public tragedies like the pharmaceutical-overdose death of actor Heath Ledger will most likely not turn the tide of public opinion on campuses across the country.

Also worth noting is the fact that a significant minority of these students see certain drugs as study aides rather than intoxicants. Stimulant-fueled cram sessions in preparation for an important exam or presentation are hardly new, but the practice seems to have gained in popularity as related stigmas grow less relevant. More than 1 in 10 students who take prescription stimulants for ADHD report selling their medications to classmates, and more than 1 in 5 do not take them as directed.

Now that the problem has been outlined, treatment and prevention are of the utmost importance - if casual attitudes remain, usage trends will continue to rise. Public service announcements have proven costly and ineffective in the past, but they may be at least an adequate first step. Teaching young adults to better recognize the signs of addiction and encouraging those affected to seek treatment is the only conceivable way to counteract the trend, and it will be money well spent. Stricter enforcement of existing laws and the implimentation of new anti-medication policies must follow. More and more students will inevitably see the ugly side of prescription abuse when they or their peers suffer legal complications, hospital stays, or death by overdose. But if we don't reinforce the considerable dangers of the behaviors in question, we can't expect trends to change.

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