Pharmaceuticals: The Next Frontier in America’s War on Drugs


America’s war on drugs, which has been fought in the opium
fields of Afghanistan and the cocaine plantations of
Columbia, will have to reinvent itself to combat what is set
to be America’s biggest drug abuse problem, pharmaceuticals.
One in five American’s, nearly 48 million, have used
prescription drugs for non-medical purposes at least once in
their lives. The current past month misuse rate among
Americans is 6.2 million. According to a recent white paper
by Carnevale Associates, this rate of use is already higher
than the historical highs of both cocaine and heroin

For some, the road to illicit use of prescription
medications starts innocently. After a car accident, back
injury, or, even, a mental/emotional breakdown a physician
prescribes medication for a legitimate use. Over time,
tolerance builds up so that more and more of the drug is
needed until a state of dependence is reached. At this
point, there is no easy way to get off the drug, and
stopping can involve painful withdrawal symptoms. Some
doctors have been known to become afraid and cut their
patients off at this point. Patients have been known to
steal prescription pads, or visit numerous doctors to get
the drugs they have become addicted to.

However, contrary to popular belief, it is not older adults
or any adults who are most likely to abuse pharmaceuticals.
In the past decade, abuse of prescription meds among youth
has been growing at an alarming first-time use rate of more
than fifty percent each year. In 2002, the latest year for
which there are statistics, approximately 2.5 million
American’s misused prescriptions for the first time and 44%
of them were under the age of 18.

Unfortunately, as the media fixes its gaze on the
methamphetamine problem; and the Office of National Drug
Control Policy spends much of its time focusing on Marijuana
the opportunity to address the pharmaceutical addiction and
abuse is being missed. While certain steps have been taken
they have been tentative. The ONDCP has drawn up a strategy
for addressing synthetic drugs, but no serious media
campaign to educate Americans about the problem has been
undertaken. Nor has any pharmaceutical company been brought
to heel for manufacturing drugs with high abuse potential
even when alternatives may exist.

The next battle in America’s war on drugs must draw a bead
on pharmaceuticals. The ONDCP must be willing to launch the
same type of hard hitting ad campaigns against prescription
drug abuse as it has against, marijuana, ecstasy and
cocaine. The FDA must not be afraid to sanction drug
manufacturers who continue to make unsafe drugs where safe
alternatives exist. Pharmaceutical manufactures must become
better citizens and spend the research and development
dollars to make safe and effective drugs, rather than taking
the easy way out.

This new phase of the war on drugs, without easily targeted
foreigners to blame for America’s drug abuse problems, will
take unwavering political resolve, corporate citizenship and
ingenuity. Even then it is likely to take years before the
trend of increases in prescription medicine abuse and
addiction can be reversed.

Common Prescription Drugs of Abuse:

Opioids: these are synthetic versions of opium. Intended for
pain management opioids are the most commonly abused
prescription drugs. OxyContin (oxycodone), Vicodin
(hydrocodone) and Demerol (meperidine) are the most popular
for abuse. Short-term side effects can include pain relief,
euphoria, and drowsiness. Overdose can lead to death.
Long-term use can lead to dependence or addiction.

Depressants: These drugs are commonly prescribed to treat
anxiety; panic attacks, and sleep disorders. Nembutal
(pentobarbital sodium), Valium (diazepam), and Xanax
(alprazolam) are just three of the many drugs in this
category. Immediately slow down normal brain functioning and
can cause sleepiness Long-term use can lead to physical
dependence and addiction.

Stimulants: Doctors may prescribe these to treat the
sleeping disorder narcolepsy or
attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, ADHD. Ritalin
(methylphenidate) and Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine) are two
commonly prescribed stimulants. These drugs enhance brain
activity and increase alertness and energy in much the same
way as cocaine or methamphetamine. They increase blood
pressure; speed up heart rate, and respiration. Very high
doses can lead to irregular heartbeat and hyperthermia.

By David Westbrook

About the Author: Dave Westbrook has worked in the field of
crisis intervention and addictions for several years. For
more information on prescription med abuse and other
addiction related topics visit

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