It used to be that when Americans thought about fighting against drugs we envisioned the jungles of Columbia and the farming slopes of Peru or Bolivia. The person who died from a drug overdose was, in our collective imagination, a person strung out on hard, illegal substances – a person who lived in a sub-culture.
While those stereotypes do still exist, the majority of drug abusers in America look nothing like that portrait. In this country, the vast majority of drug overdoses are related to prescription drugs, not street drugs, and the victims are not part of a sub-culture; they are our friends, neighbors and family members.
The most recent statistics available for study are those for 2010 and according to them, more than 50 percent of drug overdose fatalities that year were caused by prescription drugs. One major metropolitan newspaper has reported that such deaths have increased four-fold since 1999 and the number of deaths has risen steadily year by year. Of the more than 38,000 drug overdose deaths in 2010, more than 22,000 were from prescription drugs – nearly 60 percent. Hospital staffs who tend to see much of this activity firsthand say that they expect statistics for 2011, 2012 and 2013 to be higher still.
Most deaths resulted from fatal amounts of prescription painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin, though a significant number came as a result of using multiple prescription drugs. Anti-anxiety medications (benzodiazepines) accounted for 30 percent of overdose deaths. The majority of these deaths appear to be accidental. The figures show that prescribed medications are now the nation’s greatest drug threat, but those figures do not explain why drugs created to help us are being abused and killing us in such horrific numbers. A few possible explanations have been offered.
Along with better diagnostic tools, doctors now have a greater number of highly specific medications to treat illness. More patients with diagnoses drive drug manufacturers to create more drugs. The sheer number of prescriptions being written by physicians has increased astronomically in recent years. One explanation for the rise in prescription drug abuse and death could simply be that more medications are being handed out.
Another explanation for the phenomenon is that people assume that drugs prescribed to them by a physician are somehow safer than street drugs. While it is true that drugs bought at a pharmacy are regulated and therefore a person can be more secure about what is inside each tablet, the drugs themselves are still potentially dangerous. They are controlled substances and require a prescription because of this danger.
With healthcare costs rising and the price of medications soaring, many people hoard any left-over meds. Later, when they feel a bit peaked, rather than pay to visit the doctor and buy a new prescription, they self-diagnoses and self-medicate. This is a dangerous practice. It also contributes to another possible explanation for the rise in prescription drug overdoses, namely that the drugs are within easy reach.
Perhaps prescription drugs have become so popular simply because they are simple to obtain. There is no need to connect with a suspicious criminal in order to get drugs – now there is an abundant supply in the family medicine cabinet. At worst, it may require lying to the doctor, but getting prescription drugs is not difficult.
Close to seven million Americans are abusing prescription drugs. Too many of them have died as a result. Until we figure out why this is happening, the problem is likely to grow.