Pain Killers and Happy Pills More Popular Than Street Drugs

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Pain Killers and Happy Pills More Popular Than Street Drugs

WASHINGTON - 9/7/2007

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By Dan Lamothe (Capital News Service)

At 15, Jared Hess began using prescribed painkillers in his battle with chronic kidney stone problems, and by 18 he was addicted to Oxycontin, an opiate-based painkiller he was given for his illness.

"I was fortunate enough to have parents who would go to any length for me," said the Owings Mills resident, who went into treatment in 2003 and has since graduated from college and works in Washington, D.C. "In addition to their love and support, they spent over $100,000 for me to receive the help that I needed."

Hess, who spoke at a news conference, typifies what the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found in the study it released Thursday: While illegal drug use has declined among the nation's adolescents, a growing number of people of all ages are abusing prescription drugs.

Overall, an estimated 7 million Americans abused prescription drugs in 2006, said the report, the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. That's up 9.3 percent from an estimated 6.4 million in 2005.

In 2006, narcotic analgesics like oxycodone or painkillers like Oxycontin and Vicodin, accounted for 75 percent of the abuse, the survey said. SAMHSA surveys 67,500 people across demographics to reach their estimates.

"The abuse of prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons is of increasing concern," said Terry Cline, SAMHSA administrator. "These are potent drugs that can have serious and life-threatening consequences if misused."

Hess fits the demographic that public health officials said is one of their greatest causes of concern, the 18-25 age group.

Between 2002 and 2006, SAMHSA said the group's prescription drug misuse rate climbed 19 percent. Among the 12-17 age group, prescription drug abuse increased from 5.4 percent of those surveyed in 2002 to 6.4 percent in 2006.

John Walters, the White House's national drug control policy director, said it is clear the nation's focus needs to change to combat the problem. In particular, he said, patients need to destroy surplus prescription painkillers when they are no longer needed, eliminating a potential problem for friends and family.

"We need to wake up and pay attention to what's going on here," Walters said. "You wouldn't keep heroin and crack in your medicine cabinet and not consider it a hazard."

But Peter Cohen, medical director for the Maryland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, said it comes as no surprise that prescription drug abuse has increased, especially with adolescents.

"Part of this depends on what's available," he said. "Prescription drugs have become more available, whether you're talking about the stimulants that are prescribed for ADHD or the prescription for pain medicine you get after going to the dentist."

No state-by-state breakdown was available in the national survey, but Cohen said in 2001, there were only 54 cases in Maryland of adolescents seeking medical treatment for addictions to nonheroin opiates like Oxycontin, or 1.3 percent of all cases admitted. By 2006, that number jumped to 251 cases, and 5.9 percent of all cases admitted.

Cohen said the state needs to put best practices in place when it comes to prescribing medication for pain and keep close watch of treatment plans to make sure they are working.

"The No. 1 factor in helping people with drug and alcohol problems is to keep them in retention (treatment)," he said. "If you can keep them in treatment for 90 days, they usually start to get it."

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