Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription Drug Abuse

Julian Whitaker, MD

America is staggering under a growing problem with drug abuse. I’m not talking about street drugs like marijuana, cocaine, Ecstasy, and heroin but prescription drugs such as Valium, Xanax, OxyContin, Vicodin, Ritalin, and Adderall, which are peddled not by dangerous drug dealers but by your family physicians.

A Prescription for Disaster

This nationwide problem crosses all lines of society. It knows no color, race, religion, sex, or age. It makes national headlines when celebrities like Rush Limbaugh and Friends star Matthew Perry are involved, but the problem is perpetuated by physicians who use these highly addictive drugs indiscriminately. One of my patients, Sarah, was getting Xanax refills for three years past her original prescription date, no questions asked, from her gynecologist! Only after she did her own research and realized how dangerous and addictive this drug is, did she stop using it.

Unfortunately, most patients aren’t so astute. They get hooked on prescription drugs because they receive them from the very person they depend on to protect their health and well-being in the first place: their doctor. Louise, another patient of mine, took the advice of her conventional physician, asked no questions, and ended up in a one-year drug withdrawal program to help her with her addiction to Xanax.

“Benzo” Whats?

Drug dependence is more common than you think. In her book, Addiction by Prescription, Joan E. Gadsby details her 20-year battle with benzodiazepines (ben-zo-die-as-a-peens), a class of drugs that includes most sleeping pills and tranquilizers such as Xanax, Valium, Halcion, and Librium. In addition to these, pharmaceutical companies are cranking out newer benzodiazepine-like drugs with a high abuse potential—just turn on your TV to hear about the “wonders” of sleeping pills like Sonata and Ambien.

Addiction by Prescription stresses the role of doctors and susceptible patients, and points out how lucrative it is for the pharmaceutical industry to bait and hook both parties. Gadsby backs this accusation by noting that benzodiazepines are the “best-selling drugs in the history of medicine, with annual worldwide sales of an estimated $21 billion.” Her insightful book explains just how easy it is to fall prey to controlled substance use, abuse, and eventual dependence.

The Frightening Statistics

Word of this nationwide epidemic hit the media in 2005 with the publication of a report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. It not only revealed that this type of drug abuse nearly doubled from 7.8 million to 15.1 million from 1992 to 2003, but also uncovered a more startling stat: Teen abuse of these drugs had tripled. The number of 12 to 17 year olds abusing controlled prescription drugs over this 10-year period increased by a whopping 212 percent. In 2003 alone, 2.3 million kids in this age group—one in 10—were abusing at least one prescription drug.

There’s worse news yet. According to researchers, “Teens who abuse controlled prescription drugs are twice as likely to use alcohol, five times likelier to use marijuana, 12 times likelier to use heroin, 15 times likelier to use Ecstasy, and 21 times likelier to use cocaine, compared to teens who do not abuse such drugs.” Clearly, prescription drug abuse is a gateway to illegal drug use and addiction.

Only a “Click” Away

So, how are today’s youth getting their hands on these dangerous medications? The answer is closer to home than you may think: the Internet. They simply type the name of the drug they want into a search engine and, voilá! Right before their eyes, up pops a virtual pharmaceutical buffet your kids can get their hands on, many without a prescription or age verification of any kind. All they need is a credit card or a checking account, most likely yours.

Another possible scenario? Check your medicine cabinet. Many kids are abusing drugs their parents and grandparents have had legitimately prescribed. And just because you may be using them responsibly doesn’t mean they are. One horrified mother recently told the story of her eldest teenager who went to a party to retrieve his younger brother. Upon arrival at this little soirée, he noticed a large bowl in the center of a table filled with pills. Everyone who attended the party was encouraged to bring a medication to “share” with other partygoers. Now, that’s a spiked punch bowl.

Prescription Drug Abuse: The Main Offenders
Class What They’re Used For Examples of Drugs in This Class
Opioids Pain OxyContin, Vicodin
CNS Depressants (benzodiazepines, barbiturates) Anxiety and sleep disorders benzodiazepines – Valium, Xanax barbiturates – Mebaral, Nembutal
Stimulants ADD/ADHD, weight loss Ritalin, Adderall
narcolepsy Dexedrine
Source: The National Institute on Drug Abuse

Street Drug Substitutes

Some of these pharmaceuticals even mimic the effects of dangerous street drugs. According to a bulletin issued by the US Department of Justice, “The pharmacological effects of OxyContin make it a suitable substitute for heroin.” This same piece goes on to describe the story of a couple from West Virginia who turned to heroin after their doctor would no longer prescribe them OxyContin. It turns out the illegal substitute costs far less than the black market pharmaceutical on the street.

Because of its potency, OxyContin has been singled out both in the media and by many law enforcement agencies. It is not uncommon for abusers of this hazardous medication to commit heinous crimes such as armed robbery, theft, fraud, even murder to obtain their fix. This craze has inspired numerous pharmacies to post signs in their windows reading, “We have no OxyContin,” in an attempt to prevent the brazen break-ins that are occurring across the country.

Protect Yourself and Your Family

I share this information with you not to scare you but to make you aware. This is a serious problem and one that isn’t going to go away any time soon. Protect yourself and your family. Monitor the contents of your medicine cabinet, know what the teenagers in your life are up to, and be careful with all prescription medications. Just because your doctor prescribed it doesn’t make it safe.


  • If you or someone you know has a problem with any type of drug abuse, get professional help. The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Service offers around-the-clock referrals to treatment programs in your area. Call (800) 662-HELP (4357) for details.


  • Gadsby, JE. Addiction by Prescription, One Woman’s Triumph and Fight for Change. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Key Porter Books, 2000.
  • National Drug Intelligence Center. OxyContin Diversion and Abuse. Information Bulletin. 2001 Jan.
  • US Department of Health and Human Services. Prescription Drugs Abuse and Addiction. National Institute on Drug Abuse, Research Report Series. 2001 July.
  • National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse. Under the Counter: The Diversion and Abuse of Controlled Prescription Drugs in the US. 2005 July.

Modified from Health & Healing with permission from Healthy Directions, LLC. Copyright 2005. Photocopying, reproduction, or quotation strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher. To subscribe to Health & Healingclick here.

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