The New Drug Epidemic
Julie Hartman is one of a rapidly growing group of drug abusers in America. More than 18 million women ages 26 and older reported using prescription medications for unintended uses in 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available. This is almost a million more than in 2007. The drugs include sedatives like Xanax, stimulants like Ritalin, and opioid painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin -- opioids being the biggest problem, according to Stephen Ross, M.D., clinical director of the Langone Medical Center's Center of Excellence on Addiction, at New York University.
The number of people who were admitted to treatment centers for narcotic-painkiller addiction increased a staggering 400 percent from 1998 to 2008, found a 2010 government study conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an agency in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The number of fatal overdoses involving these drugs more than tripled during a similar time period. No group is immune: The increase includes women and men of every race, education level, and geographic region, employed or unemployed.
The trend is striking because while abuse of prescription drugs is exploding, addiction to alcohol and other drugs is actually dropping. In the last decade, admissions to treatment centers decreased by 16 percent for cocaine addiction and 5 percent for alcoholism.
Why the spike in Rx-drug abuse now? Availability, for one thing. There are more opiate painkillers in circulation in this country than anywhere else in the world, says Dr. Ross, in large part because doctors started prescribing them more frequently once OxyContin began being marketed for pain in the late 1990s. "And anytime you have a greater supply of an addictive drug, you will see more addictions."
There's also a big demand for drugs. "Patients go to the doctor in pain and expect to walk out with a prescription," says Marvin D. Seppala, M.D., chief medical officer at Hazelden, the addiction-rehab facility where Julie Hartman was treated. It's less time-consuming for the doctor to write it and send the person on her way. "She's happy, she gets immediate relief, and no one looks at the long-term effects," he says. "It is that easy, unfortunately."
This giant supply and heavy demand also makes it simple for moms to share their meds. Nearly 29 percent of women reported borrowing or sharing prescription drugs, according to a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
One of them is Claire (not her real name), a 34-year-old mother from a Las Vegas suburb. After getting into a car accident six years ago, she started out taking Vicodin for pain -- and eventually added another painkiller, a muscle relaxant, and an anti-anxiety drug. All she had to do to score drugs was show up at the sporting events of her kids. "Other moms were taking them," says Claire, a former PTA president. If she said, "I need a Vicodin," another mother would readily offer one -- as if it were an aspirin. "It was as nonchalant as that."