The most abused and most deadly addictive drugs in America don’t come in glassine envelope or a bit of tinfoil discretely passed hand to hand in a bar. Instead, they come in neatly labeled prescription bottles handed off over the counter at your local pharmacy.
Abuse of prescription drugs, especially opiate painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone is increasing in New York State and nationwide. According to the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy, prescription narcotics are the second most commonly abused drug in America, behind only marijuana and far ahead of cocaine and heroin.
In 2008 an estimated 15,000 Americans died from prescription-drug overdoses. Between 1998 and 2008 the number of patients seeking substance-abuse treatment for prescription drug abuse increased by 400 percent. The rise in abuse tracks closely a rise in the overall number of prescriptions for narcotic painkiller written legitimately and legally by doctors.
According to a report by New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, between 2007 and 2010 the number of prescriptions for hydrocodone written by New York doctors rose by 16.7 percent. During the same period prescriptions of the even more powerful opioid oxycodone rose by an astounding 82 percent.
“It keeps going up while everything else is holding steady or going down,” said Cheryl DePaolo director of the Ulster Prevention Council, which coordinates county drug prevention efforts. “And we’re seeing these drugs abused by every age group.”
Dr. Alexander Weingarten is a certified pain treatments specialist and president of the New York Pain Society, a professional organization of medical practitioners in a variety of specialties which deal with patients in chronic pain. Weingarten traced the expansion of painkiller use, for both legitimate and illicit purposes, to a 1989 declaration by the World Health Organization that freedom from pain was a basic human right. The declaration led to new standards for practitioners, new requirements for insurance companies to cover painkillers and new incentives for drug companies to market them. Perhaps most importantly, Weingarten said, patients came to expect that their aches and pains would be treated promptly and effectively.
“Before that, doctors were fearful about prescribing opioids,” said Weingarten. “Before 1989 pain was undertreated, and people just walked around in pain.”