Editorial: The changing nature of drug abuse


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Sometimes great intentions have unintended consequences. Every day, doctors prescribe drugs to patients with the hopes of providing much needed relief for excruciating pain. OxyContin, as an example, is prescribed to ease severe pain such as that associated with cancer.

Abuse of these drugs, however, has proved to be inevitable. Common street drugs such as meth and cocaine are no longer the main culprits. Prescription-drug abuse now rules as the No. 1 cause of overdose in the United States.

The high abuse rates could be due prescription drugs often being regarded as safe. After all, a physician prescribed them, not some shady dealer in an alley. When surveying teens, almost 50 percent indicate that they view prescription drugs as less harmful than drugs found on the street. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Fentanyl, a prescribed painkiller, is 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin. The only difference between prescription and street drugs is that prescription drugs have a medicinal use, while street drugs are purely recreational.

This epidemic of abuse has not gone unnoticed.

Federal and state laws have focused on prescription drugs in the last decade, making prescriptions rarer and specific to certain conditions. Law enforcement has cracked down on doctors who over-prescribe. New drug-monitoring programs track patients and make it difficult to receive prescriptions from more than one doctor.

It should be noted that Iowa is the nationwide leader in curbing prescription-drug abuse. During the years of 2010-11, only 3.62 percent of people over 12 years old abused prescription drugs. This is the lowest percentage of the 50 states. 

One of the most addictive and heavily abused drugs, OxyContin, has been reformulated to make it more difficult to crush (for snorting) or dissolve (for injecting). OxyContin is an opiate and acts similarly to heroin. The main difference is that it is time-released, which prevents the instant rush of heroin. When snorted or injected, this time-release is destroyed. Thus, the reformatted OxyContin is much harder to abuse.

New federal data shows that the regulations and drug reformulations have worked. Deaths from prescription painkillers dropped 5 percent in 2012. This is the first recorded drop since 1999.

The results indicate something we probably suspected — if people want to get high, they will find a way. The stance of our justice system is to treat these people as criminals. Undoubtedly, people choose to start using drugs, and in that regard, they are responsible. Once people are addicted, though, it really is almost impossible to stop. These people need help, not punishment.

The Daily Iowan Editorial Board believes the solution resides in a two-pronged approach. Prescription drugs should continue to be made more difficult to abuse through reformulation and regulations.  And our justice system needs to accept that at a certain level, addictions will occur. We should adapt our focus on treatment instead of punishment. A complete end in drug addiction is an unrealistic goal, but as a society, we should do more in prevention and treatment.