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US Sees Growing Problem With Prescription Drug Abuse

Dr. Jacob Khushigian checks on a patient who had overdosed - also showing his computer data base that lets doctors know what drugs their patients already are taking - shown in a Kaweah Delta Emergency Room in Visalia, California, February 2010. (file phot

U.S. health officials say drug abuse is a major cause of death in the United States and that prescription drugs are a big part of the problem. Painkillers and mood-altering medications have left many people addicted, with serious results.

At the Malibu Beach Recovery Center, outside Los Angeles, residents learn yoga and other coping skills to deal with anxiety, stress and chronic pain. Yoga teacher Shannon Scott was once hooked herself on the anti-anxiety pill Xanax and the painkiller Vicodin.

“Vicodin was a stimulant for me. So I also used Vicodin as something to get my engine going and carry me through the days, and my Xanax would balance me out and bring me down and relax me. But one was to calm me down and the other was to give me the energy to move forward,” said Scott.

Drug poisoning

U.S. health officials say that poisoning was a major cause of death in 2008, and that nearly 9 of 10 poisonings were caused by drugs. The so-called opioid painkillers - morphine, hydrocodone and oxycodone - were involved in more than 40 percent of drug poisonings in 2008. The number has more than tripled in a decade.

That's not news to Mary Ann Gunn, a retired drug court judge who now appears on a TV program called Last Shot With Judge Gunn, which shows the real-life effect of drugs on users and their families.

“In 1999, the big problem was methamphetamine. And it was a cancer, if you will, throughout our country. And we have addressed that and are continuing to address it. And more and more over the years we began to see people being addicted to prescription drugs.”

Specialized drug courts work with the addicts to get them into counseling and rehabilitation.

Powerful painkillers

Pharmacologist James Adams of the University of Southern California says the expanding list of powerful painkillers is snaring many patients, who are usually unaware of the dangers.

“I'm not talking about heroine abusers on the streets of LA [Los Angeles]. I'm talking about somebody's grandmother in Fresno dying from oxycodone, dying from hydrocodone, dying from morphine,” said Adams.

The recent U.S. government data shows the rate of fatal drug poisonings was highest among people 45 to 54 years old.

At the Malibu Beach Recovery Center, the addicted get off drugs, but it's not easy. The regimen includes healthy food and counseling. Joan Borsten, who heads the center, said it's hard because the drugs change the body's chemistry.

“In the case of pain pills, the body has stopped producing its natural defenses to pain, and they just have to have more and more and more and more, and finally there's nothing else to take,” said Adams.

Healthy regimen

He said that 90 million people have chronic pain, much of it from arthritis caused by obesity and aging.

“And it's a real tough problem for a doctor because here you've got a patient with chronic pain, probably howling pain, reporting pain at 7 out of 10 or something like that, and these patients know exactly how to get what they want," said Adams. "And if that doctor doesn't give it to them, they just go to the next doctor.”

He said the solution is using alternative ways to manage pain - losing weight, exercising and receiving physical therapy - and giving powerful drugs only to those who need them. Another solution: a registry of patients being used in California and many other states that lets doctors and pharmacists know what potentially dangerous drugs their patients already are taking.