Last updated: September 25, 2023
Few will argue the fact that drug abuse ranks high on the list of America’s top ten societal evils. The number of drug-related crimes and deaths per year, the number of lives shattered by drug abuse, the health-care and legal costs associated with it, speak for themselves. Did you know that, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, those combined costs top $700 billion per year?
What’s the most abused drug? Cocaine? Heroin? Alcohol? If you guessed alcohol, you could consider yourself at at least half right. Statistically speaking, more folks may abuse alcohol, but the line between heavy use and abuse can be blurry and it isn’t illegal for adults to use without a prescription.
That last point probably gave you a hint. Based on trends and mounting evidence, prescription medications—chiefly opiates, depressants, and stimulants—are the most abused drugs in America. That’s why these drugs are included on nearly all drug tests, including 5 panel, 10 panel, 12 panel, and others.
Overuse or misuse of prescribed and/or over-the-counter medications (also forms of abuse) may not be reported, but anytime someone uses who doesn’t have a current prescription, it’s abuse. The definition of abuse is clear when it comes to painkillers, while alcohol abuse and medical and recreational marijuana use may skew statistics. Those numbers amount to an epidemic in some cases, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- The 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health documented 6.5 million nonmedical users of prescription-type drugs.
- Abuse of opioids (painkillers) has quadrupled since 1999.
- 1 in 10 high school seniors admits to abusing opioids.
- 44 people per day die from opioid overdose.
- 7,000 people per day receive emergency treatment for misuse of their legally prescribed medications.
Opioids—the prescription drugs most likely to be abused—have been prescribed more and more frequently in recent years to relieve chronic pain, as well as pain caused by surgery, injury, or diseases like cancer. But because even one prescription of these drugs can be addictive, even lawful patients face the real danger of abuse in the form of overuse and misuse, both of which lead to unconsciousness, a coma, death.
Unfortunately, legitimate health-care providers aren’t solely to blame for the drugs’ increased availability. Phony pain clinics—also known as pill mills—make it easy for people to continue painkiller habits. Others looking for pain relief, the drug’s euphoric high, or a quick profit, simply steal opioids from someone else.
5.1 million Americans abused opioids in 2010.
Drugs prescribed to combat anxiety and/or insomnia—that would include tranquilizers, antipsychotics, “benzos” (benzodiazepines), sedatives, and barbiturates—fall next in line when it comes to prescription abuse.
Tolerance to these drugs increases rapidly, so even legal users are tempted to self-prescribe, upping the dose to get the same effects: reduced anxiety, lowered inhibitions, a sense of well-being. But the higher the dose, the greater the side effects, up to and including suicidal thoughts and death by OD.
2.6 million Americans abused depressants in 2010.
Prescribed to temporarily increase alertness, focus, and productivity for individuals with conditions like ADD, to relieve anxiety, or to elevate mood, stimulants place third in the triumvirate of abused prescription drugs. They’re often abused by individuals hoping to lose weight, which can be one of the drugs’ side effects. The drugs’ increase in energy and metal alertness, combined with a feeling of exhilaration, make them especially attractive to college students and young adults. So much so that according to a recent survey by Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, 1 in 7 college students admitted to abusing prescription stimulants at least once. That figure rises to 1 in 6 among young adults surveyed.
In addition to the high risk of addiction, these drugs can cause heart attacks and/or strokes.
1.1 million Americans abused stimulants in 2010.
Because prescription drug abuse poses such a major threat, and threatens to become an even greater problem, government agencies together with state and local governments seek to increase regulation, close down pill mills, and provide more comprehensive prescription guidelines.