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COLUMN: The next drug war: Abuse of prescription drugs

Kathi Ackerman,

Director Minnesota D.A.R.E.

According to some of the latest drug usage trend reports, illicit drug use is declining for teens.

Unfortunately, the use of prescription drug abuse is increasing and is currently being abused more than any illicit drug except marijuana.

Prescription drugs are being abused more than heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine combined.

In 2005, over 9 million people (age 12 and older) were current users of illicit drugs other than marijuana.

Of these, 6.4 million non-medically used psychotherapeutic drugs. If we break this down even further, 4.7 million used pain relievers, 1.8 million used tranquilizers, 1.1 million used stimulants (approx. 512,000 meth), and 272,000 sedatives. 

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, in 2006 more than 2.1 million teens abused prescription drugs and most teens get these drugs from friends and family.

Parents are often unaware of this abuse and are not discussing the dangers with their children, even though research shows that parental disapproval is one of the most effective ways to keep kids from using drugs. These drugs can often be found in a child's home, and some teens are using these prescription and over-the-counter drugs with alcohol and other drugs. The interaction of these combinations, often referred to as cocktails, can have serious medical complications.

Recent media attention largely due to the deaths of celebrities, has brought to light the dangers of these drugs. Anna Nicole Smith died of an overdose in 2007. She had been prescribed 1,800 pills in the previous five weeks of her life. Her son died from a lethal combination of methodone and two anti-depressants, 120 days prior to her death.

Heath Ledger died in 2008 from an accidental overdose. He died from a combination of several doctor prescribed drugs. In June of 2009, Michael Jackson died from what appears to be a cocktail of pain medications. Criminal charges are pending on this case. Medications assist many with relief from pain often associated with health issues, if used as prescribed. When abused, these drugs can have deadly results.

Adults and children feel safe taking prescription or over-the-counter medications because they are given to us by doctors. However, these drugs can have the same affects as drugs like heroin. The public has to be educated about the consequences of the misuse and abuse of these drugs.

This growing problem is going to cost our country billions of dollars in our criminal justice system, as crime increases to feed this habit and violence resultsfrom the use and abuse. We will pay in treatment centers and hospitals as many new patients will enter that would never have used "illegal" drugs. And social services will feel the burden as families are devastated and destroyed by addiction, accidents, and death.

Parental and community involvement, along with prevention education for children, seems to be a key in slowing the abuse of these drugs and the impact on society. The effectiveness of prevention components for students could be greatly enhanced if they are done along with community presentations for adults.

According to the National Office of Drug Control Strategy's Performance Measures of Effectiveness, intervention should begin early, it should be repeated over time, especially in later developmental stages; and intervention should be done in settings that affect the risk of and protection for abuse such as homes and communities.