Most people associate drug addiction with illegal substances like cocaine and heroin. However, the reality is that a large proportion of drug addiction starts with prescription drugs. In fact, prescription drug abuse accounts for the largest percentage of fatal drug overdoses.
In the face of the evidence of prescription drug abuse, the so-called “War on Drugs” as well as most other efforts to end addiction have focused almost entirely on illegal substance use. For this reason, there are people serving life sentences for illegally dealing marijuana, while all-too-many doctors legally prescribe far more dangerous substances every single day.
But while it is easy to point to political and corporate interests for keeping addictive prescription drugs legal and accessible, why do doctors continue to prescribe them? The extent of the problem shows that it is not just a few individuals responsible for prescribing addictive drugs, but rather a systemic problem.
Let’s start with which commonly prescribed drugs are particularly addictive.
Addictive prescription drugs
Addictive prescription drugs mainly fall into three categories: painkillers, stimulants, and tranquilizers.
Opiate-based painkillers are the most addictive and dangerous prescription drugs and get the most national attention. While many people assume heroin is the most potent and addictive opioid drug, the fact is that there are legal opioids like fentanyl that can be as much as fifty times stronger than heroin.
Stimulants include drugs like adderall that are prescribed to treat ADHD. They have become popular among students in particular, who use them to focus and get more done. They are also used by some as party drugs.
Tranquilizers include drugs like Xanax and Ambien which are prescribed to treat anxiety, insomnia, and similar conditions. The more a person uses these substances, the more they become tolerant of them. They start using more and more to numb anxiety or fall asleep.
Why are these drugs prescribed?
The fact that these drugs are still so readily prescribed speaks of an inherent issue with the US healthcare system. Many doctors learn to treat the symptoms rather than the underlying issues. There is a practical reason for this. Especially in hospitals, doctors are swamped with patients and simply cannot give each patient the time they deserve. They therefore work to solve a problem rather than to make the patient healthy.
All of the types of addictive drugs have important uses. People who experience severe chronic pain require painkillers. Anxiety medication helps people who are struggling to cope with life. And drugs like Adderall are extremely helpful for students disadvantaged by their attention issues.
However, in the majority of cases, the pills can do little more than treat the symptoms. Painkillers dull the pain temporarily. Stimulants provide temporary boosts in focus. Tranquilizers numb the anxiety for a few hours. All of them work a little less well each time.
The fact is that these drugs were developed to be part of a treatment regimen, not to be the treatment themselves. Doctors can responsibly prescribe these drugs as long as they are ensuring the patient gets treatment for the underlying issue.
For those of us who do not work within health care, we can do little more than raise awareness. As patients, it is important to never accept prescriptions for addictive drugs without further treatment. We can also pay attention to friends and family who are prescribed these drugs, helping them recognize that these drugs will not cure them and to get proper help.