Prescription drugs are perfectly safe and effective when administered correctly and given to those with a legitimate need for them. Unfortunately, their effects are enormously underestimated and there is a growing problem with people misusing them. Almost 7 million Americans abuse prescription drugs, which is more than the amount of people abusing heroin, cocaine, Ecstasy, hallucinogens and inhalants combined. These shocking figures suggest that perhaps access to prescription drugs is easier than many people realize.

Factors & Reasons

Societal attitudes to drugs have changed a tremendous amount in the last decade or so. We live in an increasingly stressful environment and science has continued developing at an astonishing rate, meaning that diseases are more easily identified and problems diagnosed. Nowadays it is not unusual for someone to be on medication that allows them to live their lives more comfortably.

However, the problem of controlling how these drugs are used has emerged. Prescription drugs have been used by students for recreational purposes as well as improving academic performance. Adults, too, have been known to self-medicate without consulting a doctor first – even when used for its intended purpose, this can be very harmful.

Many people falsely believe that since a doctor prescribed the drugs, they are safe to use. The drugs were made available to a person for specific use – their medical records will have been checked to make sure no side-effects will affect them too drastically and the doctor will have talked their patient through the correct dosage. Those who abuse prescription drugs full danger they are putting themselves in.

Case Study: Oxycontin
Developed to provide up to 12 hours pain relief, Oxycontin became incredibly popular – with sales exceeding $1 billion a year.  However, due to a label that warned against crushing the tablets because of the potential for rapid release of oxycodone, many were inspired to use the drug recreationally. Its ability to produce intense euphoria similar to using heroin made the drug increasingly attractive to those looking for a cheaper and seemingly safe alternative to street drugs. As a result, the manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, was forced to make a new formula which has now saturated the market so that its original form is very rare to come by. Sadly, this does not stop recreational users from turning to other prescription drugs.

But just how available are Prescription drugs?
Compared to street drugs, gaining access to prescription medicines is not as difficult as you may think. For example, many family homes have a draw or cupboard filled with unused drugs from old prescription bottles. Teens looking for a ‘high’ or to self-medicate in some way can easily begin abusing drugs in this way with parents not noticing. Where street drugs likely require networking and meeting a stranger on a corner, prescription pills and medicines are often readily available in our own homes. There is the misconception that because a doctor gave them to a family member, they must be safe.

Worryingly, the trading of prescription drugs is not unheard of on school grounds. Many experts now suspect that prescription drugs, with their availability and perceived ‘safe’ nature, have overtaken marijuana in popularity. Adderall poses a particular problem, since it is prescribed legally to those with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, often diagnosed at a young age.

CASA, (the National Center on Alcohol and Substance Abuse at Columbia University) found that over a third of children between 11 and 18 years old in Wisconsin and Minnesota who had legitimate prescriptions for ADHD medications reported being approached to sell or trade their drugs. Sadly, it is has been found that they often accept.

Outside of teens and young people, other methods have been employed. Fraudulent prescriptions and forging of signatures is not uncommon and an easy way to get hold of a fix. ‘Doctor shopping’ – where a patient is registers care from multiple physicians without informing them or coordinating care – has also been a proven method for getting repeated access to prescription drugs. At the more extreme end of the scale, there have even been cases of pharmacy theft, illustrating just how easy it is for people to become dependent on these drugs.

What now?

While attitudes to drugs are changing, even with the partial legalization of marijuana in some states, it is obvious that there is much left to do in educating people about the side-effects and potential dangers that misuse of prescription drugs can bring about. In the family home, restricting children’s access to prescription drugs is highly advisable, as is the discarding of old or out-of-date medicines.

NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) has put in place outreach schemes and prevention strategies in order to provide citizens with increased access to information when it comes to the misuse of prescription drugs – with this shared knowledge, it is hoped that the dangers will be fully recognized and the availability of prescription drugs significantly reduced.


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