An analysis by the Los Angeles Times has found that deaths from drug abuse now outnumber fatalities from traffic accidents in the US. Annual drug-related deaths in the US have increased from around 20,000 in 2000 to around 37,500 in 2009. Since 2003 drug use has resulted in more annual fatalities than firearms, and in 2009 for the first year it topped traffic accidents as well.

The data reveal a surprising trend in the kinds of drugs people are using and abusing. While the use of hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin is still on the rise, much of the increase in drug-related deaths is due to the abuse of prescription drugs. Between 2000 and 2008 there has been an increase of over 230 percent in the number of yearly deaths resulting from the abuse of anti-anxiety drugs such as Valium and Xanax and pain medication such as Oxycontin and Vicodin. There are now more deaths from prescription drugs than from cocaine and heroin combined.

The increase in abuse of prescription drugs is due to two main factors. First, many people were formerly prescribed these drugs before their addictive capabilities were fully known. Second, increasing numbers of young people are using prescription drugs for recreation in the mistaken belief that they are not harmful.

Increase in Prescription Drug Addiction

According to the Los Angeles Times, many doctors were quick to prescribe pain-relief medication within the past decade, and this likely plays a part in the prevalence of addiction now. It was not understood how addictive these medications could be. Therefore powerful painkillers were often prescribed for people with muscle or joint pain and other ailments. In California, prescriptions for strong painkillers rose 43 percent between 2007 and 2009.

The physiological processes by which people become addicted are complex. When someone takes strong painkillers their body adapts to this by decreasing production of its own painkillers, as well as other hormones such as dopamine which are related to causing pleasure. When the body decreases production of its own hormones and begins to rely on the drugs, it becomes painful to cut off use of the drugs.

Addicts experience strong physiological reactions when the drugs are taken away as the body’s internal hormonal balance has already adapted to the presence of the drugs. The person may experience shakes, nausea, or depression, amongst many other effects. A carefully-managed program is needed to wean them from the drugs, but the risk of relapse remains high.

Recreational Prescription Drug Use

Reports from around the country indicate that teenagers are beginning to experiment with prescription drugs, believing they are less harmful than drugs such as cocaine or methamphetamines. At pharm parties, teenagers bring medications and mix them together in a bowl. They then take one or a few pills at random to see what the effects will be. While this is very dangerous, it is even more dangerous when combined with alcohol consumption. The Los Angeles Times reports that between 2000 and 2008, drug fatalities among teens and young adults had doubled.]]>