A prescription to prevent pharmaceutical drug abuse is needed

The curious circumstances of Whitney Houston’s death are causing those fighting against drugs to revisit prescription drug abuse

WASHINGTON, February 21, 2012 - The curious circumstances of Whitney Houston’s death are causing those fighting against drugs to revisit prescription drug abuse among women and in particular mothers.

Although the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office is yet to release a final toxicology and autopsy results to confirm whether prescription drugs were in Houston’s body at the time of death, several reports indicate that there were bottles of Xanax and other prescription pain relievers in her hotel room on the day she died.

When people think of drugs, they traditionally think of street drugs like marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, and even alcohol, usually overlooking prescription drugs, such as the opiates, benzodiazepines, tranquilizers and others.

This drug class includes narcotic painkillers like OxyContin or Vicodin, sedatives and tranquilizers like Xanax or Valium at one spectrum end, and stimulants like Dexedrine, Adderall or Ritalin at the other.

All are physically and mentally addictive. All can have devestating results, including death, when the drugs are mixed, and/or drugs are taken with alcohol.

A first introduction to these addictive drugs often follows an injury or surgery; their purpose is to help the patient, under doctor’s supervision, cope with pain.

Narcotic anonymous reports that people can build a tolerance to the effect of opiates fairly quick.

Attesting to their mis-use, prescription drugs are the second most commonly abused category of drugs, behind marijuana and ahead of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs. The National Institutes of Health estimates that nearly 20 percent of people in the United States have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons.

A National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that Approximately 6 million persons 12 and older used psychotherapeutic drugs for non-medical purposes in 2004, which represents 2.5 percent of the U.S. population.

 In 2000, about 43 percent of hospital emergency admissions for drug overdoses (nearly 500,000 people) happened because of misused prescription drugs. The problem is prevalent among teens as well.

The number of teens and young adults (ages 12 to 25) who were new abusers of prescription painkillers grew from 400,000 in the mid-’80s to 2 million in 2000, according to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Even before children enter their teens, the modern world insistence on medicating children for attention deficit disorder and other psychological disorders has led to children developing a dependency on sedative type drugs.  Among 12th graders, in 2005, 9.5% reported past-year non-medical use of Vicodin, and 5.5% reported past-year non-medical use of OxyContin, according to the NIH Substance Abuse Study.

Sadly, women in particular are vulnerable.

The then director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at NIH, Nora D. Volkow, M.D., testified in 2006 before The Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources Committee on Government Reform in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Prescription drug abuse must also be carefully tracked among women because of their combined vulnerabilities,” she said.  “First, women are more likely than men to suffer from depression, anxiety, trauma, and victimization, all of which frequently appear with substance abuse in the form of co-morbidities.”

Volkow added that “girls and women report using drugs to cope with stressful situations in their lives” and that “studies suggest that women are significantly more likely than men to be prescribed an abusable drug, particularly in the form of narcotics and anti-anxiety medications.”

It is an issue even among pregnant women.  A study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, around half of all moms-to-be now take at least one medication.

Often times, society paints drug abuse as a problem of the poor, but in fact, affluent and middle-income women and college students are among the most prevalent abusers of prescription drugs.

A 2009 news report expressed surprise that well-to-do housewives and college students were the leading abusers of prescription drugs. It quoted Fresno County Coroner Dr. David Hadden who noted that “the  ‘it’ pills are hyrdrocodone, which include vicodin and norco, morphine, and now the most popular pain pill of choice, OxyContin” and pointed out that many of the 81 people who died that year “had a cocktail of drugs in their system when they died, like mixing painkillers, with cocaine and methamphetamine, or sedatives and alcohol.”

Because of the demand, prescription drugs on the black market are expensive.  On the street, one pill can costs as high as $40 to $50.

The issue is certainly not new. A 1973 study in the Journal of Drug Education spoke about how middle-class housewives were physician shopping to get one that would prescribe drugs.

Today, the NIH notes that access is even easier, pointing out, among other factors, that “aggressive marketing by the pharmaceutical industry, the proliferation of illegal Internet pharmacies that dispense these medications without proper prescriptions and surveillance; 4 and a greater social acceptability for medicating a growing number of conditions.”

Some states, like New Jersey, are cracking down by launching investigations and surveillance efforts to root out how prescription pills enter the black market trade in the first place, whether by indiscriminate prescribing, unlawful distribution and/or theft of prescription banks. The federal government continues to conduct research studies into how to prevent and treat abuse, but meanwhile the problem seems to be worsening.

It all leaves on to wonder whether enough is being done however. After Heath Ledger, Ana Nicole Smith and now, possibly, Whitney Houston, may have met their deaths due to the misuse of prescription medication, one would think such high profile deaths would be sufficient for government initiatives to combat the problem.

Hopefully, Houston’s death may lead to more outcry and inquiry into the problem. We cannot afford to lose many more teens, or mothers to prescription drug abuse.

Read more Politics of Raising Children in The Communities at the Washington Times. Follow Jeneba Ghatt at @JenebaSpeaks. Her work can also be read at JenebaSpeaks.com and  Politic365.  She also co-hosts a Blog Talk Radio show called Right of Black which tackles current events and politics from a perspective not often seen in the mainstream media.


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Jeneba Ghatt
Jeneba Jalloh Ghatt is a former journalist turned lawyer turned citizen journalist. Currently, she manages her boutique communications law firm, where she has represented small businesses and nationally-recognized civil and consumer rights organizations before the United States Supreme Court, federal courts and the FCC. She also covers the White House and US Congress for the online news site Politic365.com while authoring her own influential blog JenebaSpeaks.com which is frequently accessed by top policy makers and think tanks, and the investment community. JenebaSpeaks.com focuses on the intersection of politics and technology and reports on policies and rules in the communications and tech sector.
 
Before opening her law firm, The Ghatt Law Group, which was the first communications firm owned by women and minorities, Jeneba regulated Comcast and Starpower as the Assistant General Counsel for the District of Columbia's Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications, and at one point was the only communications regulatory attorney in the entire city. She is founding member and policy chair for a new trade association, the National Association of Multicultural Digital Entrepreneurs and provides advice and counsel to new businesses in the tech industry, particularly small businesses owned by women and minorities.

Born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, but raised in the United States by her Catholic mom and Muslim dad, she started her college career creating web content for one of the earliest websites in history while working part time for the University of Maryland's Office of Technology. Following her graduation from the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, she founded and co-wrote one of the earliest blogs and since then has gone on to found and author six different widely read and influential blogs. She was one of only 22 writers and bloggers to attend the first White House summit for African American media.
 
She holds a Certificate in Communications Law Studies from Catholic; a Juris Doctor from there as well, and a Master of Law in advocacy degree from the Georgetown University Law Center where she first taught and lectured as a Staff Attorney and Graduate fellow at that law school's Institute for Public Representation. She later went on to teach Media Law at the University of Maryland at College Park and guest lecture at Yale Law School and Penn State University, College of Telecommunications. She is well skilled and versed with social media and manages several Twitter, Facebook, Linked In accounts and groups.
 
She sits on the board of several non profits and trade associations.

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