Prescription Medication Abuse: A Persistent Problem?

Abuse of prescription drugs has been classified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an epidemic. More people die from an overdose of opioid analgesics (like Vicodin, Oxycontin and Demerol) than from heroin and cocaine combined. The scale of the problem is without question, but the main issue when it comes to protecting people from the dangers of these drugs is that they have legitimate medical uses. How can a drug epidemic be controlled when doctors across the country are professionally required to distribute them on a daily basis?

Why Prescription Medicine?

There are several different classes of prescription medicine that are commonly abused, and this is generally because of a similarity to other commonly abused drugs. The most common are opioid analgesics, which are used for the treatment of pain and are derived from morphine, the same substance used to make heroin. There are also central nervous system depressants such as Valium, which produce sedated relaxation and aid sleep. Stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin are used because they have a similar effect to amphetamines. Some people also abuse cough medicines for a hallucinogenic effect.


Between 2009 and 2010, the abuse of therapeutic medicines held steady, making up just over 20 percent of drug abuse as a whole. This makes them the second most commonly abused drug behind marijuana. In both years, over 16 million people over the age of 12 in America used prescription medications for non-medical purposes. The Monitoring the Future survey is a questionnaire for school students in grades 8, 10 and 12, and it found that 5.1 percent of them had abused Vicodin in the year preceding the survey (conducted in 2011), down from 6 percent in 2002. 4.1 percent had used Adderall (4.3 in 2009) and 3.9 percent had used tranquilizers (up from 2.8 percent in 1991).

The Risks

Although there is a perception that prescription medications are safe because they are prescribed by doctors that is only true for the recipient of the prescription and for the stated dosage. Anything else is potentially very unsafe. Both opioids and central nervous system depressants can dangerously slow breathing if taken in high doses, and each also carry unique risks. Opioid users can become drowsy and constipated, and central nervous system depressants adversely affect brain function. Stimulants cause agitation, paranoia, anxiety, irregular heartbeat and can lead to seizures.

Could They Be Stopped?

The main problem with curbing the abuse of prescription medicines is that they will always be available. Patients with chronic pain, for example, cannot be denied opioid painkillers when they can make their life manageable. Likewise, people with persistent insomnia need central nervous system depressants to sleep, and ADHD patients and narcoleptics need stimulants. These drugs are a part of day-to-day existence because they help a lot of regular people enjoy their lives.

It could be argued that doctors or renegade online pharmacies are to blame for the widespread availability of prescription medicines, and that if they were regulated more efficiently abuse would disappear. However, if you work under the assumption that some people are more likely to abuse drugs than others (as is evident from a wide range of studies), and accept that there is a chance of these people being prescribed one of the potential drugs of abuse for a legitimate condition, the problem becomes clear.

Unless new medications to treat the same conditions are developed that do not carry the risks of abuse or fatal overdose, there will always be some proportion of the at-risk population who have these drugs thrust upon them. This doesn’t even take into account the actions of doctors with lax attitudes to prescriptions or online pharmacies, or the amount of people who will seek out prescription drugs to use as a quasi-legal alternative to illicit drugs.

An additional problem comes from the fact that new substances with the potential for abuse are being formulated or discovered every year. One example is dextromethorphan, which is a common component of many over-the-counter cough medicines. If taken in excessive quantities, it produces psychedelic effects. It’s important to remember that you could probably walk down to your local pharmacy and buy these medicines whenever you like. Despite the risks in taking large doses of the other ingredients often also included in them (such as paracetamol), people still use these substances for a legal high.

It’s clear that there is very little that could be done to entirely stop the abuse of prescription medicines, but as always, education about the risks has a large part to play. We can’t deny medicine to those in need, but we can do our utmost to ensure that the public understands the game of Russian roulette they’re playing when they use prescription medicines in ways or quantities not suggested by a registered physician. Prescription medication abuse may be a persistent problem, but we need to takes steps to minimize that problem as much as possible.