Americans consume more prescription drugs than any other country in the world. With more prescription narcotics available than ever before, prescription drug addiction is the largest growing drug problem in the country — currently exploding among teens.
The Borough of Queens is no exception, and Far Rockaway ranks on the city’s top five for unintentional opioid poisoning deaths.
In a news series, The Queens Chronicle looks into the drug epidemic and the initiatives taken by legislators, law enforcement and nonprofits in the borough to combat it.
New Yorkers have since the 1980s seen several drug epidemics infesting youth and devastating communities. But while many people associate drug addiction to crack, heroin and cocaine — and most recently the cheap and accessible drug methamphetamine — most are unaware that the biggest killer in town is prescribed by their own doctor. Prescription pain medication has the same potential for addiction, overdose and death as street drugs, and it is the largest growing drug problem in the country.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration last year reported that the number of Americans aged 12 or older who used prescription-type pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, or sedatives non-medically, was almost seven million. With an average of around 6,600 initiates per day countrywide, the biggest increase is among teens who find the narcotics in mom and dad’s medicine cabinets.
After an 80 percent increase in usage from 2000 to 2006, prescription drugs have become a more common narcotic than cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, Ecstasy and inhalants combined. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls it an epidemic. While alcohol and tobacco dependency is decreasing, the misuse of prescription drugs is growing, and — although prescription drugs tend to be a more popular way to get high among middle- to high-income white communities — it is growing across all ages, genders, social and ethnic groups, and the tablets are being crushed and snorted, smoked, injected or mixed with other narcotic drugs.
In New York City, a report released in May 2011 by the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, found that the rate of prescription pain medication abuse by New Yorkers aged 12 or older increased by 40 percent from 2002 to 2009. While deaths caused by heroin poisoning decreased by 24 percent in 2009, it rose by almost the same percentage for unintentional opioid analgesic overdose deaths. In Queens, the hospitals reported that an overdose of prescription pills took 28 lives in 2009. As prescriptions for hydrocone and oxycodone keep increasing — doctors in Queens in 2009 wrote close to 400,000 — and the treatment centers report steep increases of opioid addicts, especially among adolescents, experts fear the worst is yet to be seen.
Dr. Steven Kipnis is the medical director of the State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services and oversees 12 addiction centers and 15,000 medical addiction programs in New York. One of them is Creedmoor Treatment Center in Queens Village, a facility with both in- and outpatient rehab programs. Last year most of Creedmoor’s 400 patients were admitted as opioids dependants, whether heroin or OxyContins.
“Patients are probably a bit younger now than 10 years ago. Alcohol has gone down, all other user addictions have gone up,” Kipnis said. “Queens is not unique to other boroughs or the rest of the United States, kids are starting relatively young.”
He said that teens get their first medication at home from the medicine cabinet, bottling without their parents’ knowing. And when they get addicted and need more drugs than are available, they start buying it from the street, oftentimes turning to heroin, which is cheaper and more accessible.
Research by the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows that among teens aged 12-17 years-old, abuse of prescription drugs is second only to marijuana. The most commonly abused prescription drugs among adolescents are painkillers based on opioids like OxyContin and Vicodin. Opioids count for three-fourths of prescription drugs addictions. Stimulants or uppers like Ritalin, are another group and primarily prescribed for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. When taken in higher doses, these drugs can produce euphoric effects. The last group is the benzodiazepines, or depressants, also known as sedatives and tranquilizers, like Valium and Xanax. With a rapid impact on the brain and a long duration of action, these drugs have high abuse and addiction potential. Mixed with alcohol, they can be deadly.
Many experts attribute the growth in prescription drug abuse in part to the recent availability of OxyContin, an effective oxycodone pain reliever. However, when crushed and snorted or mixed with water and injected, the drug delivers all its power at once, producing a high similar to that experienced with heroin, making heroin addicts actually favor OxyContin. In 2010 the number of reported new non-medical users of OxyContin aged 12 or older was almost 600,000 people.
OxyContin, also known as Oxy, O.C., killer and hillbilly heroin, has taken hold both because it can be strongly addictive and because it generates high dollars on the black market, with a street value of as much as $80 per 80-milligram dose. Other cheaper Oxycodone formulations such as Roxies, Blues, Berries, and “30s” are becoming popular.
As for the stimulants, such as Ritalin, Methylin and Concerta, their increased use for the treatment of ADHD has paralleled an increase in its abuse among teenagers, who crush the tablets and snort the powder to get high. Several police agencies have reported incidents of schoolchildren selling prescription drugs, particularly Ritalin, to classmates.
The National Drug Survey for 2010 shows that among persons aged 12 or older who used pain relievers non-medically, 55 percent got the drug they most recently used from a friend or relative for free. Another 17.3 percent reported they got the drug from one doctor, 4.4 percent got pain relievers from a drug dealer or other stranger, and 0.4 percent bought them on the Internet. Among those who reported getting the pain reliever for free, 79.4 percent reported in a follow-up question that the friend or relative had obtained the drugs from just one doctor.
So far most efforts made to combat the problem deal with stopping prescription forgeries such as State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s Internet System for Tracking Overprescribing (I-STOP) bill, that if enacted would create a real-time online database enabling doctors and pharmacists to report and track certain controlled substances, or the Drug Enforcement Administration efforts to crack down on prescription forgery and meds sales on the black market (all of which next week’s article will shed light on). But if close to half of all drug abusers get them from friends and family, other methods are also needed.
More recently, public and educational institutions have been starting campaigns to raise awareness about the widespread abuse.
“Education campaigns and take-back programs are an important component to stopping prescription drug abuse especially with teens. I think these programs need to be implemented in unison with programs to stop fraud,” said Sheila Brocavich, assistant clinical professor at St John’s University. Along with her students she is setting the Jamaica campus up as a collection site for the National Drug Take Back, where students, families and businesses can drop off excessive and expired drugs. The Staten Island campus of St. John’s University will also participate to serve the needs of the Staten Island community — the city neighborhood with the record number of hydrocone and or oxycodone prescriptions and opioid overdose deaths.
The National Drug Take Back is scheduled for Saturday, April 28 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Go to justice.gov/dea to find a collection location by ZIP code.
- US Food & Drug Administration
- Office of National Drug Control Policy
- New York Society of Addiction Medicine
- New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration