Prescription Drug Abuse: Up 430%

A Tennessee judge was having sex and buying pills during courtroom breaks from convicts he had previously sentenced, read an article from the Associated Press last week.

Published the same day, an article from Press-Citizen revealed how a former Iowa City nurse was charged with stealing her patient’s medications from the hospital’s drug dispensing machine.

These are only two of the many appalling stories due to a rising epidemic in the United States—Prescription drug abuse.

A Tsunami of Abuse

A new report from The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported a 430% increase of treatment admissions for abuse of prescription pain relievers from 1999 to 2009. Treatment admissions rose form 10 per 100,000 in the population in 1999 to 53 per 100,000 in 2009.


That’s right. This isn’t just a wave of prescription drug abuse. It’s a tsunami.

A Flood of Painkillers

 “Americans, constituting only 4% of the world’s population, consume 80% of the global supply of opioids, 99% of the global supply of hydrocodone, and two-thirds of the world’s illegal drugs” –the DEA

Statistics show that prescription drug abuse significantly contributes to the rise of general drug abuse. More specifically, prescription painkiller drug abuse.

According to the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 36,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2008, and most of these were caused by prescription drugs. Of all prescription drug overdoses, nearly 75% of deaths are caused by prescription painkillers such as Vicodin, OxyContin, or Percocet.

Opioid painkillers alone caused over 14,800 overdose deaths in 2008, which is more than cocaine or heroin combined.

Why Painkillers?

Why, of all the prescription drugs out there—including benzodiazepines, stimulants, and sedatives—are opioids the most commonly abused medication?

A good guess would be that painkillers are among the most commonly prescribed medications. Pain is the most common result of any disease, condition or illness, and pain is the most common reason people visit the hospital.

But pain meds are often misused by their users or just find their way into the hands of those who do not use it for pain. The majority of painkiller abusers obtain their medications from a friend, not their physician. The CDC shows that 71% of people who abuse prescription painkillers obtained them from a friend or relative and only 17% obtained the drugs from a doctor.

The Surge of Non-Medical Use of Painkillers

These numbers can explain the rise of the nonmedical use of prescription painkillers. Consider the following reports from the CDC:

  • For every 1 death, there are 10 treatment admissions, 32 emergency department visits, 130 people who are dependent, and 825 nonmedical users.
  • In 2010, 2 million people reported using prescription painkillers non-medically for the first time. This is nearly 5,500 people a day.

Timothy J. Landrum from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) told the California Watch that there are “more than 7 million people using prescription drugs for non-medical reasons every month.”

What Next?

“Don’t just stand there; do something!”

Just like when people live in a tsunami-prone area, they take measures to protect their possessions and themselves. And once the storm comes, they put their plan into action and escape to safety.

Preventive Measures

No, you can’t stop the rise of prescription drug abuse. You can’t stop a tsunami that’s already come. One person may not change a national statistic, but one person can impact a life. In taking these simple preventative measures, ONE person can prevent ONE person from addiction, whether that is yourself or a friend.

If you are taking prescription drugs,

  • Follow the Directions. Take your prescription drugs as prescribed by your doctor. (Usually, just adhering to this one rule can make all the difference).
  • No Sharing. Do not share your prescription drugs with anyone else. (This includes your spouse, children, or other relatives).
  • Throw it Out Properly. If the medication has expired or unused, throw it out. And throw it out properly. SAMHSA provides some basic disposal guidelines on their site:

Helping a Friend

Perhaps you are concerned about family members or a friend whom you suspect have a substance abuse problem. If so, please don’t brush it aside, make excuses for them, and ignore it. Never underestimate the severity of addiction. Instead seek help. Prescription drug addiction can be treated, and people do recover.