Prescription Drug Abuse

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A Story About Pain

Wincing in pain was not how I envisioned the end of our vacation a few months ago. Walking as fast as I normally do brought tears to my eyes. Sitting in one position for more than a few minutes was uncomfortable. Sleeping was impossible. I wondered how I was going to work my way through the airport and sit still on an airplane for the two-hour-plus flight home. The pain was the most intense I had felt since I had appendicitis as a teenager. I still do not know exactly what happened, but somehow, I had twisted or pulled the wrong way and strained my hip.

I felt so bad that we stopped at a walk-in medical clinic on the way home from the airport. The doctor listened to my account, examined me, and prescribed two medications: a steroid I was to take for a week and hydrocodone, a powerful narcotic painkiller I was to take as needed. Our regular pharmacy was closed, so my wife went to another drugstore to fill the prescriptions.

I longed for that painkiller even though I rarely take either prescription or over-the-counter medication. Yet, I was also apprehensive. What if I got hooked? I vowed to take only what I absolutely needed in order to sleep. The first night back home, I took one pill before going to bed and another one when I woke up in the middle of the night in great pain. The second night, I only took one pill at bedtime. On the subsequent nights, I decided to forego the prescribed painkiller.

Once my pain diminished, I was amazed at the seeming ease of obtaining that prescription. I had never seen that doctor before, and her examination lasted 15 minutes at most. Could a gifted actor, or a motivated addict, convince a doctor to write a prescription that wasn’t medically needed? I also wondered what to do with the leftover painkillers. The bottle was nearly full because I had only taken three pills. I knew the remaining pills could be an enticing temptation, maybe even for someone I knew.

A Growing Problem

At the time of my painful ordeal, I did not realize that more than 70 percent of people who abuse prescription painkillers get them from friends or relatives, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Most get the drugs from family or friends for free and with their permission. Some buy them from their friends or relatives, and some take them without permission.

Prescription drug abuse is a growing problem. Overdose deaths from prescription drugs have now outpaced deaths from heroin, cocaine, and other illegal drugs. In 2009, deaths from prescription drug overdoses exceeded the number of deaths from motor vehicle accidents for the first time ever. According to the DEA, seven million Americans abuse prescription drugs, including about one out of seven teenagers.

The increase in prescription drug abuse can be seen in statistics from emergency rooms. Between 1994 and 2001, the number of people who came to an emergency room because of abuse of narcotic painkillers increased dramatically. The number of those who abused oxycodone rose 352 percent; methadone, 230 percent; morphine, 210 percent; and hydrocodone, 131 percent. And more than 70 percent of those who visited an emergency room because of prescription pain medication reported abusing more than one drug.

“Experts don’t know exactly why this type of drug abuse is increasing,” according to the National Institutes of Health. “The availability of drugs is probably one reason. Doctors are prescribing more drugs for more health problems than ever before. Online pharmacies make it easy to get prescription drugs without a prescription, even for youngsters.”

The DEA is targeting pharmacies and pharmaceutical distributors that sell drugs illegally. Yet this effort alone will not solve the problem. “At the end of the day, our strongest tool is vigilance among everyone with access to a medicine cabinet,” said Gil Kerlikowski, head of the White House’s anti-drug campaign.

Dangers of Prescription Drug Abuse

According to the Mayo Clinic, the most commonly abused prescription drugs include not only narcotic painkillers (like oxycodone and hydrocodone), but also sedatives and tranquilizers (like diazepam and lorazepam) and stimulants that are used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and sleep disorders. Such drugs are prescribed for legitimate conditions.

People abuse such drugs for many reasons. Some motivations include: to experiment, to fit in and be accepted by peers, to reduce appetite and lose weight, to relax, or to get high. Some start abusing because they mistakenly believe that prescription drugs are always safe, even when not used for their intended purpose. Others start abusing because they wrongly think that unlike street drugs, taking prescription drugs without a valid prescription is legal.

I am not the only person afraid of becoming addicted to medication prescribed for a legitimate condition. The Mayo Clinic asserts that “people who take potentially addictive drugs as prescribed rarely abuse prescription medications or become addicted.” Instead, the risk factors for prescription drug abuse include: past or current addiction to other substances (including alcohol), youth (particularly teenagers and those in their early 20s), peer pressure and exposure to drug use, easy access to prescription drugs (including working in a health-care setting), and lack of knowledge about the danger (for instance, thinking that taking medication prescribed for another person is safe because it was prescribed by a doctor).

“There are serious health risks related to abuse of prescription drugs,” according to TheAntiDrug.com, an online support community for parents and others working to prevent drug abuse. “A single large dose of prescription or over-the-counter painkillers or depressants can cause breathing difficulty that can lead to death. Stimulant abuse can lead to hostility or paranoia, or the potential for heart system failure or fatal seizures. Even in small doses, depressants and painkillers have subtle effects on motor skills, judgment, and ability to learn.” In addition to the physical dangers, other symptoms of prescription drug abuse include: poor decision-making; change in sleep patterns (either sleeping more or less than usual); mood swings; taking higher doses than prescribed; “losing” prescriptions so another prescription must be written; seeing more than one doctor for prescriptions; illegal activity such as stealing, forging, or selling prescriptions; poor judgment; poor academic or work performance; and motor vehicle accidents.

Who Is My Neighbor?

Prescription drug abuse is a serious and growing problem, most likely affecting individuals and families in our own communities, and possibly in our own congregations. But as long as no one in our families or our close circle of friends abuses prescription drugs, why should we care? Why should we get involved?

One of Jesus’ stories provides guidance for us. A religious leader asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit life. The leader already knew the answer: Love God and love your neighbor. But he wanted to know: Who was his neighbor? Whom did he have to love? Just his family, close circle of friends, and/or the people who lived nearby?

To answer the leader’s question, Jesus told the story of a traveler who was robbed, beaten, and left for dead by the side of the highway. A priest was traveling along that same highway and saw the victim but did not stop. Later a Levite also saw the victim but did not stop. Then a Samaritan came along. Many of the people who first heard this story would have assumed that the Samaritan was a villain who would perhaps finish the victim off. Jews and Samaritans had little to do with each other, and most had been taught since childhood to hate each other. But in a twist, Jesus said that the Samaritan not only saw the victim, he did something to help. He stopped, bandaged the victim’s wounds, took him to an inn, and paid the innkeeper for the victim’s care. At the end of the story, Jesus added one more twist. Instead of answering the religious leader’s question, Jesus asked the question, Who acted like a neighbor? The answer is clear—the Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). We are to go and do the same.

This story offers an example of how to be a good neighbor and demonstrates Jesus’ care for healing those who suffer. It provides the ethical heartbeat for our choices about how we manage and dispose of prescription drugs in our own medicine cabinets, about how we educate ourselves and others about using or abusing prescription drugs, and about how Christian communities can offer support and compassion to those who may be affected by prescription drug abuse.


Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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