Prescription and over-the-counter drug abuse is on the rise—why?
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Picture an idyllic suburb in Anytown, America, where homes are well-kept, lawns are mowed, trees trimmed, houses painted, paved driveways occupied by SUVs and sedans, and homes filled with families—your typical “all-American” family living the American dream.
Now add to this image: A teenager gets into one of the vehicles and goes on what has become a regular trip to a local store. The trip seems innocent enough, just picking up some cough or pain medicine, something done thousands of times a day for proper reasons.
But this young person has a different purpose in mind. Due to the regularity of such purchases, his ultimate purpose will go unnoticed.
Upon returning home—back to a house and neighborhood in which most of the world would never get a chance to live—the over-the-counter cough medicine will be refined to extract the active ingredient, increasing the intensity of the “high” the drug will produce. The refining process is easily obtained from the Internet after a few effortless searches, providing detailed instructions with pictures to make every step clear and understandable.
The active ingredient of the cough medicine will produce extreme euphoria and, if taken in large enough doses, feelings of invincibility or “out of body” experiences and other hallucinations—what some have called mind-expanding, seemingly “spiritual,” experiences.
Sadly, this type of drug abuse can all too often go unnoticed and bring the most unfortunate side effect—death!—needlessly shattering the lives of many youths and their families.
In a time when so many in the Western world are blessed with a high standard of living as never before, it may seem difficult to understand why many turn to substance abuse.
Recent statistics, reports and analyses show there is some good news on the war against the use of illicit drugs. Teen use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, LSD and other drugs has been reduced by up to 23% over the last five years.
This is great news by any standard, but it does not give the complete picture: At the same time this decrease occurred, a disturbing trend in over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drug abuse dramatically increased.
The abuse of licit drugs is prevalent. Several celebrities have recently made news headlines due to their alleged abuse of pain relievers. But their examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to licit drug abuse, a problem that exists “under the radar” at every level of society.
The journal Pain Physician published a comprehensive review on this topic entitled, “Prescription Drug Abuse: What is being done to address this New Drug Epidemic?” The report shows a shocking 556% increase in sales of oxycodone/Oxycontin, a 500% increase in therapeutic grams used, a 568% increase in non-medical use, and a 129% increase in opioid-related deaths (excluding heroin)!
Data from a report by the California Poison Control shows that since 1999 teen abuse of Coricidin pills, Robitussin cough syrup and other common medications had risen ten- to fifteen-fold for children ages 9 to 17.
A 2005 study by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America places teen abuse of cold medications on par or higher than the abuse of illegal drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine, methamphetamine (meth) and heroin.
Prescription and OTC drug abuse is not limited to America. A United Nations group recently reported this problem is quickly passing the abuse of all illegal drugs worldwide.
The main reason licit drugs are gaining popularity among the youth is the ease of access, as these are widely available in drug stores, grocery stores and home medicine cabinets. Abuse takes many forms, such as ingesting cough syrup or pills at three to ten times the recommended dosage, or even going to great lengths to extract the active ingredients; once isolated, the users can smoke, snort or ingest them.
Abuse of prescription drugs has become increasingly widespread among teens and young adults, now ranking second—only behind marijuana—as America’s most prevalent drug problem.
(Below are examples of the types of licit drugs being abused, and some of their symptoms.)
Name: Codeine, cough syrups, etc.
Signs, symptoms: Respiratory depression, decreased mental status, hypotension, cardiac dysrhythmia, bronchoconstriction, constipation, decreased intestinal motility, lethargy, coma
Name: Oxycodone, Oxycontin
Signs, symptoms: Respiratory depression, decreased mental status, hypotension, cardiac dysrhythmia, hypoxia, bronchoconstriction, constipation, decreased intestinal motility, lethargy, coma
Name: Propoxyphene, Darvon, etc.
Signs, symptoms: Respiratory depression, seizures, cardiac toxicity, nausea, vomiting, anorexia, constipation, abdominal pain, drowsiness, coma, confusion, hallucinations
Name: Benzodiazepines, Xanax, Valium, etc.
Signs, symptoms: Respiratory depression, hypothermia, hypotension, nausea, vomiting, impaired speech and coordination, amnesia
Name: Amphetamine, Adderall, Dexedrine, etc.
Signs, symptoms: Hypertension, agitation, headache, seizures, dehydration, hyperthermia, shock
Name: Methamphetamine, Sudafed, Desoxyn, etc.
Signs, symptoms: Hypertension, agitation, headache, seizures, dehydration, hyperactivity, coma, pale skin, restlessness, overly talkative, insomnia, paranoia, aggressive behavior, hallucinations
Source: Saunders Nursing Drug Handbook 2003
The most commonly abused pills are the painkillers Oxycontin, Vicodin and Percocet. Even medications for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)—drugs such as Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta and Strattera, along with the common cold medicines such as Coricidin and Robitussin—are used to get high. Coricidin and Robitussin are sought for the active ingredient dextromethorphan hydrobromide (DXM), which abusers claim gives a high similar to taking ecstasy—“trip-like” effects such as mild distortions of color and sound, strong visual hallucinations, out-of-body sensations, confusion, slurred speech and the loss of motor control.
Among teens, abuse takes many different turns. There are reports of an increase in the number of parties or gatherings for the purpose of sharing and abusing drugs that were collected, bought or stolen. The pills are thrown into a bowl and kids take a handful, hoping to get high.
The gravest concern is that partygoers do not know exactly what they are taking or the effects of mixing the different medicines together. This can have fatal consequences.
Before addressing the underlying cause of this problem, we must first examine some of the methods used to counter this trend.
The first line of defense generally used to prevent or reduce drug abuse is education—teaching the side effects of using certain substances. Sadly, when it comes to the abuse of licit drugs, especially OTC cough medicines, there is much work to be done.
Those who should be most effective in educating the youth are parents; however, most are utterly failing in this matter. While nine out of ten parents have discussed the dangers of drugs with their teenagers, less than a third of teens say they learned significant information.
According to an annual study by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, three of five parents discuss drugs such as marijuana “a lot” with their children, but only a third of parents discuss the risks of abusing prescription or OTC cold/cough medicines.
Because parents have been taught to look for all the classic signs of illegal drug abuse, they are missing this new trend.
Some of the signs to watch for are: items disappearing from the medicine cabinet; empty pill bottles or pill packages in and around the home; packages arriving unexpectedly; changes in sleep and eating patterns; declining grades; loss of interest in friends; changes in behavior; and the presence of unusual chemicals in or around the home.
There are specific things parents and guardians can do, such as taking inventory of all medicines, and tracking what is used and when; instead of stockpiling pills, only buying what is needed; throwing out leftover pills when done and locking the medicine cabinet.
As awareness of licit drug abuse increases, preventative steps are also being taken outside the home. Some of the top pharmacies in the country now require customers to be 18 years of age to purchase anything with DXM, and have limited the number of boxes of Coricidin (two per purchase) regardless of the customer’s age.
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Michigan) has introduced legislation making it illegal to sell DXM products to any person or company not affiliated with the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration).
The Consumer Healthcare Products Association is pushing for federal legislation to ban online sales of pure DXM, and is also working to shut down websites that promote the drug’s recreational use.
Generally, there is a simple answer as to why prescription and OTC drug abuse exists: They are easy to get! Convenience stores sell certain over-the-counter medicines, and almost every major grocery store and mass merchant now includes a pharmacy as part of their operation.
The accessibility of these drugs extends to the Internet; with a simple search, one can find online pharmacies willing to sell the pills. Some companies will even sell the raw form of DXM. In a recent study, over half the teens surveyed claimed that the drugs are “available everywhere”!
Again, not only are the pills easy to get, but information on how to abuse them abounds on the Internet. Social networking sites provide detailed instructions and accounts of personal experiences. Some even provide videos of their latest “trip” and announcements of the next time users plan to get high!
Ultimately, the worldwide web provides a synergy of information offering a quick exchange of approaches, ideas and methods promoting abuse at a speed and depth that is hard, if not impossible, to stop.
Teenagers today are the most medicated generation yet, earning the name “Generation Rx.” They have such a false security about the safety of abusing prescription and OTC medicines, over 40% consider them safer than illegal drugs; 31% believe there is nothing wrong with abusing them once in a while; 29% believe pain medication prescribed by doctors is not addictive; and alarmingly, 55% do not strongly agree that using cough medicines to get high is risky (Partnership for a Drug-Free America).
Because pain relievers and cold medicines are legal, many teens presume these to be “safer” to abuse than illegal drugs, further driving this growing trend.
Yet there is a greater underlying cause behind mankind’s tendency to abuse medicine and drugs.
As never before in history, knowledge is freely available throughout nearly all walks of life. Yet the knowledge that mixing certain chemicals can produce fatal side effects seems to be widely disregarded. As mentioned earlier, partygoers randomly take handfuls of pills, not stopping to consider what they are ingesting or the consequences of combining excessive amounts of potentially harmful medication.
Consider how a former DXM abuser finished a recount of what can only be described as a horrible episode of tremendous drug abuse: “There was nothing better to do, and there still isn’t.” Even the lessons that should be learned by experience—by the “school of hard knocks”—are ignored.
Today’s Information Age was foretold long ago in the Bible, a time when people would run “to and fro” around the earth and knowledge would be increased (Daniel 12:4). Exactly as prophesied, the volume of knowledge in the whole world has dramatically increased. Yet, paradoxically, ignorance has also dramatically increased! A recent poll in the United States revealed the appalling level of ignorance regarding the Bible—the foundation of all knowledge.
Few are aware that there are two opposite ways of life: (1) the way of give—outgoing love and concern, first to God and then to neighbor—and (2) the way of get—putting the self before everyone and everything else, seeking every sensual pleasure possible and deciding for oneself right from wrong.
Human beings have produced great works of art, gone to the moon and back, built mega-cities, reduced illiteracy, made great advances in medicine—while at the same time struggle to solve universal problems: starvation, disease, social injustice, government corruption, terrorism, war, poverty, crime, unwanted pregnancies, divorce, broken families—and drug abuse!
Why? Man is incomplete.
While animals can build nests and dens, men build houses, skyscrapers, office complexes. While fish and other creatures make their home in the sea, man can cross the ocean, explore its depths, transport goods and peoples from continent to continent. While birds and insects can fly through the air, men fly in state-of-the-art jets from city to city, country to country, across the world.
What makes human beings different from animals?
While God created animals with brains, He gave man a mind—the human brain combined with the “spirit in man” (Job 32:8). It is the mind that empowers man to be creative. Yet the human mind is incomplete, only being able to know and increase in physical matters. In order to understand spiritual knowledge, the mind needs to be infused with God’s Spirit.
Without the Holy Spirit there is a void in the lives of men. In a world cut off from God, mankind has sought to fill it by turning to and abusing the physical creation—by trying to find peace, joy and happiness chemically.
Galatians 5:19-21 outlines the fruits of human nature, what the labors of human beings produce without God’s Spirit. Verse 21 lists “drunkenness,” a form of substance abuse. And verse 20 lists “witchcraft,” which in the original Greek is pharmakea. This can also be translated as “medication,” and is the root of our modern word “pharmacy” and “pharmaceuticals.” (In ancient times, witches and sorcerers abused drugs to practice magic and sorcery.) God’s Word reveals that it has always been in man’s nature to abuse drugs.
All long for peace, joy and prosperity—but instead of turning to God, the true source of lasting peace, happiness and security—humanity always turns to the physical, as with drugs.
Verses 22 and 23 describe the fruits of God’s Spirit—and the first fruit listed is joy. True joy cannot be obtained through chemically-induced feelings! The “highs” or experience a user gets from drugs—whether prescription, over-the-counter or illegal—are temporary at best, leaving behind an addiction that craves increased dosages.
Neither preventative techniques, endless calls for “education,” nor government regulation of drugs will remove this ever-growing problem. Illegal drug use may have decreased, but substance abuse is still a way of life for many trying to fill a spiritual void, especially among teenagers.
A time is coming when the true and lasting joy that God offers through His Spirit will be offered to every human being—past, present and future.