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Prescription drug abuse: how serious is the problem? Has it come to Mercer?


According to a recent survey of 100 Mercer students conducted by The VOICE, 66 percent said the had abused prescription pills such as Percocet, Vicodin, and OxyContin at some point in their lives. These pills contain Schedule II and Schedule III narcotics such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. While many of the students surveyed do not believe that prescription pills are readily accessible at Mercer, 94 percent of those surveyed said they are easily accessible in the area.

In the survey, the 66 students who said they had taken prescription pills for reasons other than their intended use also said they had taken anywhere from two to 18 pills at a time. Forty-five percent said that pills can be bought for $2 to $45 each. Fifty-two percent of the students surveyed said that they know of someone who is either dependent on prescription pills or addicted to them.

There are currently a growing number of patients with chronic pain who depend on prescription drugs to lead a normal functional life.  Most patients who are prescribed drugs for pain management use the medications responsibly, but some end up taking the medications for non-medical purposes.

Controlled substances, when used responsibly by the patient it was prescribed for, can relieve severe pain. However,when they are abused it can lead to serious addiction. People who get addicted frequently end up in detox programs, rehab centers, and prison. The addiction can also be fatal.

According to The Drug Abuse Warning Network’s (DAWN) website, it is estimated that out of 118 million emergency room visits in 2008, 4.3 million were related to drug use, abuse or misuse either in conjunction with alcohol, illicit drugs or pharmaceuticals.  DAWN estimates that 31.5 percent of emergency room visits are associated with  non-medical abuse of painkillers that leads to allergic reactions, detox, overdose and doctor-shoppers who are people who will act out pain in order to get prescription painkillers.

“Doctors are dispensing high amounts of controlled substances not for legitimate medical reasons but for self gain,” said Dr. Smith (not her real name; she asked to remain anonymous), a physician,who practices in the Princeton-Plainsboro area in a recent interview with The VOICE. Dr. Smith also said that the prescription drug abuse across the country will soon become a pandemic.

Vivek Joshi, a pharmacist from a Princeton CVS pharmacy stated that anyone can drop off a prescription for controlled substances, “But only immediate family members are allowed to pick it up in case the patient is sick or hospitalized,” he added.  When asked about the volume of prescriptions that he received on a daily basis, Joshi said that he could not discuss the matter because of privacy and security of his colleagues.

With the rise in the number of prescriptions, there has been a corresponding increase in the abuse of painkillers. Painkillers may be ingested by swallowing, chewing, injecting or snorting crushed pills. There is also abuse of other forms of painkillers such as Fentanyl gel patches and Fentanyl lollipops, which are 100 times stronger than morphine.

“[Fentanyl] is the only opiate that gives me the warm opiate sensation,” says Pete (not his real name), a Photography major in his last semester at Mercer who started abusing prescription pills together with other medications at the age of 14. “I want the lollipops so bad,” he says.

Pete says that obtaining the fentanyl patch  is not always easy. The first time he came across the drug was by chance in a marijuana deal

Pete recently chose to withdrawal from Suboxone, a medication used to treat opiate addiction by blocking the opiate receptors, in order to use the Fentanyl gel patch.  “When I withdrawal, I just want to cry, I want to throw my body against the wall and with a knife cut an X on my chest. I want to cut my arms off,” Pete says.

Pete added that he needed to go through the withdrawals symptoms to get high. “I had to wait 24 hours after using Suboxone to have my opiate receptor accept another opiate. I was so fucking excited; I ripped the patch open and ate it,” he says.

“Opiates act in the brain as an opiate receptor and it alters the perception of pain.  When administered other than the prescribed method such as snorting or injecting, for an example, it causes a feeling of euphoria,” said Dr. Smith.  After the euphoria can come the withdrawal symptoms.

“Withdrawal symptoms are similar to the flu, only much more intensified.  Chills, fever, bone aching, sweating and shaking. Hospitalization is the safest method to withdraw from opiates,” said Dr. Smith.

When Dr. Smith was asked why people take more pills each time she said, “When someone is abusing pain medication, their tolerance elevates, the body gets used to the amount of the narcotic in the pill after a period of time….You always need a higher dosage to feel the same way you felt when you first began.”

Dr. Valerie Brooks-Klein, Mercer’s Senior Counselor and a licensed psychologist, says she has dealt with two cases of Mercer students who struggled with abusing prescription pills.

“I have a couple of people that I worked with who were coming here because they had issues with chronic pain and depression. In the course of discussing that, we realized that there were some issues in the frequency in which they were taking the painkillers,” Brooks-Klein said.

According to Dr. Brooks-Klein, high school kids are having cocktail parties where they grab as many pills as they can from home and dump them in a jar before taking hands full of pills at a time. Dr. Valerie Brooks-Klein said that “The addiction is fast and furious and most people need to be hospitalized to get off pain medications.”

“Besides self medicating, [painkillers] inertly numb your emotions and your personality,” said Matt, a recovering drug-addict from Hamilton who does not want to be identified by his real name because of a pending legal case.

“At Steinert (Hamilton East High School), everyone was on pills all the time.  Three of my friends were pill-counters at  CVS pharmacies at the time, and bags containing multi-colored pills would just fall on our desks. We would help ourselves and sell the rest,” said Matt.

“Not everyone has the same tolerance as me. I would have to take thirty 5mg Percocet pills by cold water extraction to feel anything,” said Pete.  Percocet contains both Oxycodone and acetaminophen (Tylenol), and cold water extraction is a method used to extract the opiate and remove the acetaminophen since drug abusers only want the narcotic and large doses of acetaminophen can cause severe or fatal liver damage.

According to the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,  overdose deaths caused by controlled substances are on the rise.  In 2000 there were about 4,000 and in 2007 the casualties  were up to 11,000. Pain medication is the fastest growing drug addiction in the United States.

Last September, the DEA conducted an operation to collect old prescription pills with no questions asked, in over 7,000 sites across America.  According to statistics from the DEA, 242,000 pounds of prescription pills were turned in.

On April 19, 2011, President Obama’s Administration announced a plan to fight the abuse and misuse of controlled prescription drugs. This problem is not new, but recent and famous cases of drug overdoses, such as those of Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger and Anna Nicole Smith, have brought more public attention to the misuse of controlled substances.

In the recent federal government attempt to reduce America’s prescription drug abuse, President Obama said he is aiming to cut the abuse by 15 percent in the next five years. He aims to tackle the problem in three ways: through education programs for doctors on how to prescribe and monitor these controlled substances, by tracking prescription pills using a database, and by having better training for law enforcement officials.

“Education and regulation will not solve this issue,” said Dr. Smith. “As long as doctors have mortgages to pay, and pharmaceutical companies’s relationships to doctors are not regulated, this will become a pandemic,” she added. 

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