The Prevalence of Prescription Drug Abuse

When most people think of drug abuse, they think of the many street drugs—such as heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and ecstasy—that are familiar to them from news, movies, and television. They would be surprised, however, to know that millions of people abuse drugs that most people assume are safe, were often prescribed by a physician, and were bought at the corner pharmacy. While prescription drug misuse has soared in the United States, it is also a growing problem in other areas such as Canada, the European Union, and Africa.

Prescription drug abuse is the fastest growing drug problem in North America. The United States has the highest level of opioid (painkiller) use in the world, followed by Canada. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the classes of prescription drugs most commonly abused are: opioid pain relievers, such as Vicodin or Oxycontin; stimulants for treating Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), such as Adderall, Concerta, or Ritalin; and central nervous system (CNS) depressants for relieving anxiety, such as Valium or Xanax.

However, there is some good news: The 2016 Monitoring the Future Survey found that prescription drug abuse among American teens was starting to decline. According to the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, there was a 45 percent drop in opioid use among twelfth graders compared to five years ago. Researchers say doctors have become more cautious when prescribing opioids to teens and have limited the number of refills in favor of other pain management methods.

According to the 2013 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS), one in four teens has misused or abused a prescription drug at least once. The study shows the teen rate of abuse skyrocketed by 33 percent from 2008 to 2012. One in eight teens have taken the stimulants Ritalin or Adderall at least once. The 2013 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey, which polled 120,000 middle and high school students, found that 1 in 8 students reported taking a prescription opioid pain medication recreationally in the last year. The majority of students got the drugs from home. About 1 percent (13,500 students) used stimulant drugs such as Ritalin or Adderall without a prescription. This means that teens are more likely to abuse prescription drugs than they are to use illegal drugs such as cocaine and GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate).

Prescription drug abuse may be hard to detect for both an addict and his or her friends and family. Because the drugs initially come from a doctor, many people assume that they are safe or not addictive. Because they most often get their drugs from a legal drugstore, abusers may not even think of themselves as addicts. But their addiction is real and often has devastating effects on their lives and families. Moreover, abusing prescription drugs is a crime, and there are legal consequences of supporting a drug habit.

Although it is a long and difficult road to take, there is a way out for every addict.
Addiction can be treated. Although it is a long and difficult road to take, there is a way out for every addict. However, addiction is not easily overcome simply by a desire to quit, even though the addict must first want to stop taking the drug. Addictive drugs change the abuser’s body and even alter the structure of the brain. Although many people withdraw on their own, direct medical supervision is the safest and most supportive way to withdraw from an addictive substance.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

The U.S. National Library of Medicine defines neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) as “a group of problems that occur in a newborn who was exposed to addictive illegal or prescription drugs while in the mother’s womb.” The drugs pass from the mother’s bloodstream to the placenta, the organ that supplies food and oxygen to the developing fetus. The baby is born addicted to drugs and may suffer withdrawal symptoms. In recent years, the abuse of opioids (prescription pain relievers) has caused an alarming increase in the number of NAS hospital births in North America. Drugs that can cause NAS include amphetamines; barbiturates; benzodiazepines; cocaine; marijuana; and opiates/narcotics such as heroin, methadone, and codeine.