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Rx Abuse Leads to Opiate Addiction

It’s a disturbing trend that illustrates how the best intentions can lead to unforeseen consequences. A story in the Star-News details how addiction to prescription pain medications can lead to using street drugs like heroin. The lesson here is that drug abuse isn’t a simple problem, and it won’t go away with stricter enforcement alone.

Using several examples of North Carolinians who get hooked on legal pain medications and then, when supplies were restricted, moved to street drugs, the authors lay out how these tragic circumstances come about. Amber Spivey, who now receives methadone to help her kick heroin, started out with pain medications when she was a teenager. After being convinced it was a better and cheaper high, she took up heroin in her 20’s.

And that’s one key element – heroin does the same job as prescription opiates (which are also derivatives of the poppy plant) without any of the controls that come with a doctor and a pharmacy. Someone who cannot get their “medicine” because of a crackdown on prescription drugs, or someone who is looking for a cheaper or better high, will be attracted to street drugs. The question then becomes, are we making more heroin addicts by cracking down on prescription drug abuse?

Not directly, but there’s an element missing when law enforcement busts a prescription drug ring. These are operations that steal, use bogus prescriptions, or simply work the system to get prescription drugs to sell on the street. When users are caught, they may face a fine or jail, but the focus is rarely on getting them treatment. Without this critical element – the only chance to break the cycle – we are almost forcing them to seek out other ways to get stoned. It’s a simple law of economics – one supplier is cut off and you look for a replacement.

The replacement here is heroin. Cheap and available. According to the story, the number of people seeking treatment for dependence on opium derivatives is surging statewide. The disturbing trend is being fueled by precipitous growth in prescription drug abuse, which doctors and law enforcement officials say has fast created a new category of heroin addict.

The place to head off the downward spiral is when a doctor first notices a patient is using heavy doses of opiates. Addiction should be expected then and addressed.

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