How America's Prescription Drug Addiction Crisis May Get a Whole Lot Worse
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Today, prescription drugs are the second most abused drugs in the nation. Marijuana still reigns supreme.
"I think it's one of the worst problems we've ever had in this country. You thought meth was bad? Well, prescription drug abuse is much worse," said Kevin Smith, director of governmental affairs at the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws, an organization that advises policy makers and health officials in shaping effective state drug policy.
The National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws is one organization in a long list of private entities, government officials and nonprofits helping state governments figure out how to regulate prescription drugs.
Unlike the war on illegal drugs, the federal government can't try to shoot and incarcerate its way out of this epidemic. Remarkable advances in medicine over the past two decades have afforded millions of people better forms of relief from crippling pain and anxiety. These drugs will remain legal until laboratories come out with something to replace them with.
Because the practices of health officials are regulated mainly by state law, and because the specificities of drug problems vary widely from state to state, often as a result of their relationship to state law, state and federal health officials decided years ago that it would be best if the states managed their own plans to combat abuse.
Currently, almost every state is experimenting with some version of a fairly humane system designed to curb prescription drug abuse, and brand new enhancements to those systems are likely to become the norm in other states, even when they're untested.
If states prove successful in significantly reducing the number of prescription drug overdoses, without negatively impacting the lives of people who really need the drugs, they could influence the reshaping of the nation's policies for illegal drugs.
However, due largely to the complex way that these strategies are being coordinated between states, private organizations and the federal government with what pretty much everyone says is a limited funding stream against a new kind of drug epidemic, information about what is and isn't working is often slow to arrive.
There are also competing philosophies about where the problem stems from. The solid research that exists is often ignored.
For example, tabloid stories generally paint a portrait of the common prescription pill abuser as someone who was legitimately in pain but was transformed into the Limbaugh breed of junkie by their doctor. However, a 2008 study by the Miami School of Medicine found that 96 percent of people who were prescribed opioid medications did not become addicted to them.
Another study of 28,000 people conducted by the Treatment Research Institute in Pennsylvania found that 78 percent of people in rehab for prescription drug addiction had never been prescribed their drug of choice, and instead started getting it through friends or family, or a dealer.
But whether it was through a dealer, the family medicine cabinet or a friend at a party, the pills ultimately came from a doctor.
There is no coherent national strategy, at least not one with any depth. But in 2011, the Obama administration released an action plan to combat prescription drug abuse, which advised states to set up educational programs for patients and doctors, empower law enforcement crackdowns on pill mills, create medical waste disposal programs that encourage people to keep old pills out of the medicine cabinet and monitor prescriptions. In many states, some version of each of these methods is currently in operation.
"Silver Bullet" for Ending Prescription Drug Epidemic