Prescription drug addiction is an ongoing chemical dependency to any medication normally legally prescribed by a medical doctor. In some cases, this form of addiction occurs in people who were originally intended to take the medication in question, while in other cases, it occurs in people not originally meant to take the medication. Prescription drug abuse and addiction frequently occur in the U.S. In fact, only one illegal drug (marijuana) has a wider effect on society than misused prescription medications. Ironically, many of the problems with these medications begin because consumers consider them safe in comparison to illegal drugs.
Understanding Illicit Drugs
In the common public perception, the term “illicit drug” is more or less synonymous with illegal or banned substances such as marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine. However, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the term has a wider definition, and also includes the intentional misuse of legal drugs or medications. For instance, if you receive a prescription for any given medication, you can permissibly (or licitly) use that medication according to the guidelines set forth by your doctor. If, however, you use someone else’s prescription drug, or use your own prescription for non-medical recreational purposes, the same drug becomes illicit or illegal.
Common authorities on drug use in the U.S.-including the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse-gather statistics on prescription drug abuse or misuse, rather than prescription drug addiction. According to the most current figures, released in 2010, roughly 7 million American adults abuse prescription pain relievers, sedatives, tranquilizers or stimulants in any given month. By comparison, roughly 17.4 million American adults use marijuana in a given month, 1.5 million American adults use cocaine, 1.2 million American adults use some form of hallucinogen, and 700,000 American adults use some form of illicit inhalant. Another roughly 200,000 American adults use heroin in a given month.
Overall, males are slightly more likely to abuse prescription drugs than females. However, pre-teen and teenage girls abuse prescription substances somewhat more frequently than males in these same age groups. As a whole, pre-teen and teenage children account for roughly 33 percent of all prescription drug abuse in the U.S. Abuse is also relatively common in older adults.
Gaining Access to Drugs
Typically, people who use illegal drugs need to go outside normal, legitimate channels to gain access to their drug of choice. Prescription drug abusers and addicts, on the other hand, can frequently obtain their drug of choice through legitimate access to a prescribing doctor. In some cases, users of illicit prescription drugs also obtain their drugs of choice from someone else with a legitimate prescription through methods that include asking for them, purchasing them or stealing them.
We can get a better understanding of these types of drug access by looking at the ways in which people acquire illicit pain relievers. For example, over half of all abusers of prescription pain relievers obtain medications from a relative or friend. Almost 20 percent of pain relief abusers get their medications directly from a single prescribing physician. Another 4 percent of all abusers of prescription pain relievers get their medication supply from strangers, either in person or through websites set up on the Internet.
Some people consider prescription drugs to be safer than illegal drugs in all circumstances. Reasons underlying this attitude include the distribution of these medications by licensed medical professionals and the widespread use of prescription medications throughout society. However, a drug is only reasonably safe when prescribed directly to you by a physician and used according to that physician’s instructions. Any other use can seriously endanger your short-term or long-term health. While not all drugs present a risk for addiction, improper use of certain medications – including pain relievers, stimulants, sedatives and tranquilizers-can easily start you down the path to addiction-related problems.
A Widening Trend
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the use of prescription drugs with a potential for abuse and addiction has risen sharply in the U.S. in the last 20 years. As a result, actual cases of abuse and addiction are also on the rise. In addition, the number of fatal pain reliever-related overdoses now surpasses the number of fatal overdoses from the use of both heroin and cocaine. You can play a part in reversing these trends by educating yourself about the potential dangers of addictive prescription drugs, passing this knowledge on to your friends and family, and strictly following the prescription guidelines set forth by your doctor.