WASHINGTON – Maryland substance abuse treatment centers experienced a 36 percent increase in admissions for prescription drug use in fiscal 2002, according to state and federal statistics.
Nearly 3,500 people were admitted to Maryland treatment centers for prescription drug abuse in 2002, a significant increase from 2001 and more than double the amount admitted in 1999, according to Maryland’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration.
While age-specific numbers are not kept by the state, health officials said the increase in Maryland appears to mirror a national trend toward prescription drug abuse among teens and young adults.
Officials said Maryland saw steady increases in the abuse of pain relievers like Oxycontin, Percocet and Vicodin, by heroin addicts supplementing their habits and by others, typically younger users, who mix the pills with alcohol and marijuana for a more potent high.
“Culturally, I think it’s becoming more acceptable to abuse these drugs,” said Tim Dove of the A.F. Whitsitt Center, a treatment center in Kent County.
But while prescription drug abuse is growing, it has never accounted for more than 5 percent of total substance abuse treatment admissions in Maryland.
“The abuse of diverted pharmaceutical drugs is by no means the biggest problem facing adolescents, but it is a big one,” said Dr. Mark Fishman, a physician at the Maryland Treatment Center.
Fishman said the problem of prescription drug abuse has been overblown by the media and that marijuana and alcohol remain bigger problems for young users.
The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines prescription drug abuse as the non-medical use of any prescribed drug for the feelings it can cause. Prescription drugs are divided into four categories: pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants and sedatives.
In its annual National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, the federal government reported that about 11 million Americans ages 12-25 abused prescription drugs in 2001. The survey said pain relievers are the most commonly abused prescription drugs.
Dove said that the majority of the people who come to his clinic with prescription drug problems are white females in their mid-20s who have become adept at creating a network of doctors who can satisfy their prescription drug needs.
He said these women often have more access to state healthcare programs, which makes it easier for them to get in contact with physicians. They initially see their doctors for legitimate health concerns, like chronic back problems, but begin to crave more drugs when their bodies become immune to the drug’s effects, Dove said.
Princeton McClure, the program coordinator at Alcohol and Drug Intervention Inc. in Anne Arundel County, said that many of his clients have begun to use illicit and prescription drugs almost interchangeably, substituting one for the other whenever it is convenient.
McClure said that some addicts rationalize their abuse of prescription drugs, reasoning that because the drugs are prescribed they are more acceptable. That ignores the fact that the prescriptions were not for them and can result in a dependency that traps users in a vicious cycle of drug abuse, he said.
“Using is a merry-go-round for them. Everything is a blur, and it’s like `wheee’,” McClure said.
While many officials have noted that prescription drugs are more often abused by middle-class whites in rural or smaller metropolitan areas, Fishman said that it is impossible to classify any individual as the typical user of a drug.
“Drug abuse is an equal opportunity employer,” Fishman said.
He stressed the need for caution in the distribution of prescription drugs by pharmaceutical companies and physicians, but he acknowledged that this can be extremely difficult as more and more people learn how to work the prescription drug system.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration recently unveiled a national ad campaign aimed at limiting the increase in prescription drug abuse among teens and young adults.