Prescription pain killers that are derived from the opium poppy, like OxyContin and Vicodin, have become the nation’s leading drug threat. They are technically not the most commonly abused illicit drug, since the federal government still regards marijuana as being illegal under any circumstances. But if we set aside marijuana due to its patchwork legal status across the country, then opiate pain pills are the most commonly abused drugs in the United States. While heroin is still fairly low on the list nationally, over and over we see that opiate pain pill addictions eventually convert to heroin addictions if they aren’t treated early enough.
Opiate pain pills have created addiction in demographics that otherwise likely would have never even tried an illicit drug. The problem is thought to date back to the late 1980s, when opioids started to be prescribed for long-term pain management for the first time. The introduction of OxyContin to the market in 1995 is where things really kicked off, however. Major pharmaceutical companies made a big marketing push for doctors to prescribe pain pills more often and in greater numbers, and they did. Even now, knowing the dangers these pills present, they are still prescribed at an incredible rate. The United States presently uses about 80% of the entire world’s supply of pain pills.
Pain pills present serious health risks, including death by overdose due to respiratory depression. Pills alone can ruin a life quickly. But the serious trouble starts when the pill addict can no longer get enough prescriptions to keep up with their addiction. “Doctor Shopping” is a common practice wherein the addicted person is forced to visit multiple physicians in an attempt to maintain an adequate supply of pain pills. These days, a National database is available to doctors and health professionals. The database allows health care professionals to view the prescriptions recently filled by their patients.
At some point, the addicted person is no longer attempting to “get high” but rather, they require an ever-increasing amount of opiate medication simply to stave-off withdrawal symptoms. Its not that they necessarily want more pain pills, they NEED more pain pills to avoid getting sick. Opiate withdrawal is extremely painful and uncomfortable. It has been described as the worse flu imaginable, multiplied by 20X. Addicts will usually do pretty much anything to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
Once all the visits to doctors have been exhausted and/or the addicted person simply cannot afford the high price of illicit pills, at that point, they almost invariably switch to heroin. Heroin is much less expensive than purchasing opiate pain pills on the street. While the pills are certainly dangerous when taken in a manner other than prescribed, pills from a legitimate prescription are at least pure and have a known dosage. Heroin is only available on the street from criminal organizations, and can contain nearly anything. A popular tactic among dealers is to cut heroin with fentanyl, an extremely powerful synthetic opiate that can very easily overwhelm and kill a user.
An opiate addiction is one of the most powerful forms of addiction there is. Those who attempt to “kick the habit” on their own put themselves at serious risk for health complications, and usually fail due to a combination of powerful cravings and awful withdrawal symptoms. It is possible to beat an opioid addiction with professional treatment, however. Through a combination of detox, individual counseling, group meetings and management medications, many former opiate addicts have been able to return to living a drug-free and productive life.