Drug addiction is a serious issue on a national level. Here in Arizona, we face some unique challenges when it comes to drug abuse. Prescription medications are some of the most widely used – and abused – drugs in Arizona. Although prescription drugs may not immediately come to mind when you hear “drug abuse,” the statistics concerning prescription drug abuse in Arizona may surprise you.
Prescription drugs are the root of most illegal drug addictions and overdose-related fatalities. Addiction to these medications cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars every year for a variety of reasons, including medical care, prison maintenance, law enforcement, and educational platforms tailored for raising public awareness.
More Pills Than People
Arizona takes the number six spot on the list of states with the highest number of prescription drug abusers in the country. Surveys show that 8% of Arizona youth and 13% of adults reported prescription drug misuse. If you consider that people misusing prescriptions are likely wary of answering such a survey, then the real figures are probably higher.
Any prescription can potentially be misused or abused, but some medicines carry severe risks if taken too often or with other substances. The United States is in the midst of an opioid epidemic that has claimed tens of thousands of lives over the past decade. Most people may think of heroin when they hear the phrase “opioid abuse,” but most deaths actually stem from prescription opioid abuse. Patients either misuse their prescriptions, resulting in an overdose, or they develop a dependency on the prescription and turn to heroin – a widely available and much cheaper alternative – once the prescription runs out.
The Costs of Prescription Drug Abuse
The prescription drug problem in Arizona entails much more than just fatal abuse. The prescription drug problem costs Arizona taxpayers millions.
Prescription drug abuse is the number one cause of all emergency room visits and hospitalizations for drug poisonings. The costs of these visits and lifesaving medical intervention total into the hundreds of millions every year and continue to rise. The average cost of an emergency room visit for medicinal poisoning is near $5,000.
Social Service Cases
Arizona emergency departments handle cases of opioid abuse and dependency. These numbers are also on the rise. In 2011, there were 9,512 cases – 2,391 of which involved youth and young adults. Additionally, Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome is a medical term that describes babies born addicted to opiates due to their mothers’ use while pregnant. Between the years of 2008 and 2013, three out of every 1,000 babies born in Arizona were diagnosed with it.
Law Enforcement Costs
Prescription drug abuse also affects law enforcement costs. The number of driving under the influence (DUI) arrests for drug use has doubled over the past decade. 2013 saw 4,073 arrests, representing a 99.4% increase. Arrest rates for narcotic drug possession increased 15% between 2010 and 2012.
Addressing the Roots of the Problem
These statistics may startle you. Educate yourself about the inherent dangers of prescription drug abuse. Although your doctor provides prescriptions, it’s important that you follow proper dosage directions and never use more than the recommended dose. As you take a drug, your body slowly develops a tolerance to it. As your tolerance increases, your body needs more of the drug to feel its effects. This is the onset of addiction.
Prescription drug abuse has risen to a crisis situation due to several factors, including that prescription drug use is largely considered “socially acceptable.” Most people wouldn’t think twice upon hearing a friend or relative mention their use of prescription painkillers for a medical condition.
Many people also hold very unrealistic expectations for pain management. If a patient does not notice immediate or obvious effects from a dose of a prescription medication, he or she may be tempted to take more to address his or her pain.
Many health care professionals are quite lax about prescribing opiates and other habit-forming medicines. It is not uncommon for survey respondents to report the ease with which they can procure prescriptions and refills for painkillers. In other cases, doctors prescribe too large of a dose or too many doses for a particular patient. Opioids are powerful painkillers that can help patients manage great amounts of pain. These drugs are habit-forming, however, and dependency can manifest very quickly, even after following proper dosing instructions.
Dependency Borne From Good Intentions
Most drug abuse – especially heroin – starts with prescription drug use. The majority of doctors exercise reasonable caution when prescribing opioids because they are aware of the inherent dangers of these drugs. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. A patient may develop a dependency that lasts longer than a prescription. Once the prescription drugs run out, he or she often turns to heroin as a replacement. Heroin is much cheaper than prescribed opioids and is readily available in most of the country.
Confronting the Issue in Arizona
In an effort to curb the tide of prescription drug abuse, Arizona has enacted some measures through several agencies, including the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission; the Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith, and Family; and the Board of Pharmacy. This collective effort is known as the “Arizona Prescription Drug Misuse and Abuse Initiative.” Over the past several years, the Initiative adopted a multi-systemic approach to address the prescription drug abuse problem in Arizona.
The Initiative partnered with professional organizations to educate healthcare practitioners about safe opioid prescribing practices and instituted rules for prescribing controlled substances. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a four-year $3.6 million grant to prevent prescription opioid overdose deaths. The Initiative has started implementing these funds.
Better Education Creates Healthier Citizens
One of the biggest areas of concentrated efforts is more education for doctors and health care professionals in terms of proper applications of opioid, interactions with other substances and medications, dosage limits, and recognizing indicators of habitual use in patients. Doctors must be able to identify patients who are most at risk for developing dependencies on prescription drugs, such as those who face severe chronic pain or undergo intensive surgeries with long-term recovery. In those situations, there needs to be alternative methods of treating patients without risking encouraging dependency.
Patients also must receive thorough instructions and warning about their prescriptions. Many people report that they simply receive a prescription and are sent on their way. They may use a prescription without any ideas about the inherent dangers before performing certain actions or engaging in activities such as driving. They also may not be aware of potential complications if they combine the prescription with other substances.
What Can You Do?
If you experience severe pain, you deserve a means to treat it. A prescription may be a perfectly viable option. However, it’s vital that you take the time to fully understand the risks associated with the drugs you take. Ask your doctor extensively about the do’s and don’ts of your prescription. Take care not to exceed the recommended dose. If you feel as though your dosage is too low, consult your doctor and express your concerns about managing your pain without developing a dependency.
Prescription drug abuse arises from misinformation, miscommunication, and, generally, a false sense of security surrounding supposedly “safe” substances. It’s vital that Arizona citizens recognize the crisis prescription drug abuse represents in our state, and make an effort to stay educated about proper prescription drug use.