Understanding Drug Dependence

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At Novus, a significant number of our patients arrive with an addiction problem that stems from a prescription drug that was not bought on the street or in a dark alley but was medically prescribed to treat pain, anxiety, sleep disorders or obesity.
Our patients became physically dependent on and addicted to these drugs and continued to obtain and use these drugs long after their original prescriptions expired. For many, they just kept going to other doctors and getting new prescriptions. For others, they found that the prescription drugs, or illegal drugs in the same class, were available for easy purchase on the black market.

The non-medical use or abuse of prescription drugs is not unique to Novus but is reaching near-epidemic proportions all over the country. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Synthetic Drug Control Strategy: A Focus on Methamphetamine and Prescription Drug Abuse, May 2006, “Prescription drugs account for the second most commonly abused category of drugs, behind marijuana and ahead of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and other drugs. (Emphasis added.) Prescription drug abuse poses a unique challenge because of the need to balance prevention, education, and enforcement with the need for legitimate access to controlled substance prescription drugs.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (NIDA) research report Prescription Drugs: Abuse and Addiction, August, 2005, states that there are three classes of prescription drugs that are most commonly abused:

  • opioids, which are most often prescribed to treat pain—examples include: codeine, oxycodone (OxyContin and Percocet), and morphine (Kadian and Avinza);
  • central nervous system (CNS) depressants, which are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders—examples include: barbiturates (Mebaral and Nembutal) and benzodiazepines (Valium and Xanax);
  • stimulants, which are prescribed to treat the sleep disorder narcolepsy, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and obesity—examples include: dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine and Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta).

The rampant problem of prescription drugs is not confined to just adults. According to the 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), approximately 48.7 million Americans aged 12 or older reported non-medical use of any psychotherapeutic drug at some point in their lifetimes, representing 20% of the population aged 12 or older. Approximately 6.4 million Americans aged 12 or older reported current (past month) use of psychotherapeutic drugs for non-medical purposes, representing 2.6% of the population. In this report, psychotherapeutics includes any prescription-type pain reliever, tranquilizer, stimulant, or sedative but do not include over-the-counter drugs.4

Additional data from the 2005 NSDUH show that 2.2 million people, aged 12 or older, initiated non-medical use of prescription pain relievers within the past year.

Not surprisingly, many of the people incarcerated in the United States abused prescription drugs. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately 21.3% of State prisoners and 16.9% of Federal prisoners surveyed in 2004 indicated that they abused depressants at some point in their lives. For this report, depressants were defined to include barbiturates, tranquilizers and Quaaludes.

There are serious health risks to abusing prescription drugs. If someone abuses opioids, narcotics or pain relievers, they can find that their breathing is drastically slowed or even stopped.

If someone is abusing depressants, including benzodiazepines and other tranquilizers, barbiturates and other sedatives, they can suffer seizures, respiratory depression and decreased heart rate.

A person abusing stimulants often experiences a high body temperature, irregular heart rate, cardiovascular system failure and seizure.

The Drug Abuse Warning Network (“DAWN”) receives reports of emergency room (“ER”) visits caused by the non-medical use of legal drugs. Some of these ER visits were the result of the deliberate abuse of prescribed or legally obtained medications. Interestingly enough, the numbers of ER visits caused by accidental overdoses or adverse reactions caused by prescription drugs that were taken as directed by a physician are not reportable to DAWN unless they are present in combination with an illicit drug.

During 2005, there were an estimated 598,542 ER visits that involved the non-medical use of prescription or over the counter pharmaceuticals or dietary supplements. CNS agents were involved in an estimated 305,973 ED visits and psychotherapeutic agents were involved in an estimated 275,430 visits.


At Novus, we specialize in assisting people safely withdraw from unneeded and unwanted drugs and alcohol. If you have questions about how Novus could help you or someone you know, please call us at 800-505-6604.