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Prescription Drugs: The Biggest Danger

Years ago, when people named the drugs most seriously abused in the United States, they immediately thought of marijuana, cocaine, and—that most despicable of all drugs—heroin. Drug rehab was for people with needle tracks climbing up their arms. If someone was an addict, you knew he lived a life so lowdown he didn’t even know how low down he was.

You can’t be so quick to generalize these days. The business manager wearing the perfect suit with the waistcoat or the fashionista who teaches at the art institute might well be abusing drugs. They’re not using heroin or methamphetamine or ecstasy. According to Mike Gallagher in the Albuquerque Journal Online, in Prescription Drugs Kill More in N.M. Than Heroin http://www.abqjournal.com/main/2012/08/14/news/prescription-drugs-kill-more-in-nm-than-heroin.html, there are more people in New Mexico dying from prescriptions drugs than from heroin or cocaine.

Gallagher reports on Dr. Harris Silver, a surgeon who got a prescription for pain killers for a disc problem in his neck. When his back problem was resolved, he kept seeking new prescriptions, going from doctor to doctor.  His drug abuse went on for twenty years. He was caught only when an astute pharmacist noticed that he was presenting prescriptions from a variety of doctors and turned him in. 

Nobody thinks they’re “abusing” prescription drugs. Your doctor writes an order so that you can go to the drugstore and pick up something to help you sleep, help you relax, help you quit biting your nails. And then you give some to your spouse—“just try some of this”—or someone else in your family helps themselves to it.  According to the National Surveys on Drug Use and Health quoted by Gallagher, 55 percent of pain medication abusers get their drugs for free by taking them from a friend or relative.

When someone like Dr. Silver gets a prescription for pain medications, he is likely to have difficulty getting multiple refills. Either his doctor or his insurance company will balk at continuing the prescription. That’s when earnest, ordinary people begin stealing from friends and family members, or they turn to drug dealers for something to take the place of the prescription meds.

The three most commonly abused categories of prescription medications include opioid pain relievers, central nervous system depressants, and stimulants. Let’s take a look at each of them.

  • Opioids. If you’ve heard of Percocet, Hydrocodone, OxyContin, or even Tylenol with Codeine, then you’ve heard of opioid pain relievers. They are commonly prescribed for postoperative pain or dental problems.  They are dangerous because they cause users to be drowsy and utilize poor judgment, rendering them prone to automobile or other accidents. However, possibly their biggest danger occurs when they depress the respiratory system. You can take painkillers, pass out, and die.
  • Central nervous system (CNS) depressants include common, well known benzodiazepine medications such as Valium and Xanax, used to relieve stress and panic attacks. Sleep aids such as Lunesta or Ambien are not classified as benzodiazepines but they work on the same receptors in the brain. There is also a category known as barbiturates, which are better controlled than other CNS depressants. However, since they are sometimes used for surgical patients or for treating seizure disorders, they are still somewhat readily available. They are just as deadly as opioids.
  • Stimulants. As you would think from the name, stimulants increase your heart rate, alertness, and overall mental focus. Today they are most often prescribed to treat attention deficit disorder, and they are also very carefully controlled. However, they are popular among people who take them for weight loss and also among college students who want to heighten their alertness when they are studying or taking a test. Aside from the euphoric energy a user will feel, he is also likely to experience paranoia and aggression, and when he comes down from the high he will feel draggy and depressed.  They won’t make you pass out like the other two categories, but how about being “stimulated” all the way to a heart attack?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) reported in 2008 that 52 million Americans had abused prescription drugs at least once, and 35 million of them had abused pain killers. Over 6 million had used them in the one-month period just prior to the survey.  The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that over 6,000 people per month have their first experience abusing prescription drugs.

In New Mexico, Gallagher reports, most of the people who die from prescription drugs are between the ages of 44 and 64. That’s a far cry from the young street punks, right? Among women, more die from prescription drugs than from illegal drugs.

Today Dr. Silver, after successfully completing drug rehab, has switched his specialty to epidemiology, which is the study of disease patterns in the general population. He testified before New Mexico’s Legislative Health and Human Services Committee last year that focusing on drug prevention is twice as cost effective as treatment. 

Gallagher also reports on the case of another man who graduated from painkillers for dental pain to heroin. He went through one drug rehab center and relapsed immediately after his release. Both Dr. Silver and this second young man are also doing well at this time in their recovery. Both of them tell people that drug rehab isn’t easy, that addiction is a complex brain disease that disables a person’s ability to make good decisions.

Rehab isn’t easy. But it’s possible!  Call Vista Taos to begin your road to recovery at 1.800.245.8267.





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