Community Foundation of New Jersey

Drug Abuse Takes a Turn for the Medicine Chest

April 29, 2013

We first shared the below story on prescription drug abuse in 2012.  But the success of “National Prescription Take Back Day” on April 27th caused us to revisit the issue.  Click here to read how several Morris County communities safely collected and disposed of potentially dangerous (if used incorrectly) prescription drugs – and how you can do the same in your community. 


Access to illegal drugs in the United States has arguably never been greater, with dangerous substances being bought, sold, and used in neighborhoods across the country.  So how are users – from first-time to habitual – getting access to these drugs?  In many cases, it’s the dealer on the street.  In some cases, it’s because he or she is part of an underground network.  And increasingly, it’s thanks to grandma.

That’s right: grandma has become part of the illegal drug trade in the United States.  Unwittingly, of course. 

Truth be told, the fastest growing drug problem in the United States is prescribed by medical professionals, dispensed by neighborhood pharmacies, and stored in household – say, grandma’s – medicine cabinets. Classified as an epidemic by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), prescription drug abuse is linked to more unintentional deaths than cocaine and heroin combined. Fatalities caused by prescription drugs are at an all-time high, having more than tripled in the past two decades according to the CDC. Poisoning is now the leading cause of injury-related deaths in the United States, outpacing motor vehicle fatalities for the first time in 2008. And almost all poisoning incidents (90%) are drug-induced, with nearly half of these incidents caused by prescribed substances.

So what exactly is prescription drug abuse?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines it as taking a prescription drug that has been prescribed for someone else, or taking it for reasons or in dosages other than as prescribed. Among the most commonly abused prescribed substances are narcotic pain relievers, accounting for 75% of the prescription drug abuse problem. And with an accelerating rate of Americans receiving treatment for chronic pain (an estimated 116 million in 2011) comes a parallel increase in prescription drug overdose, addiction and fatalities. The prevalence and availability of prescribed substances contributes to increased risk of addiction and abuse. According to the CDC, over 5 million Americans reported using prescription pain relievers non-medically and more than 70% obtained the drugs from a relative or friend.

Emerging trends show an increased number in young people abusing prescription substances, largely due to the perception that prescribed medication is less dangerous than illicit drugs. Emergency room visits from prescription drug overdoses now match the number of visits from overdoses of illegal drugs, and the greatest increase in emergency visitors is among young adults.

Due to the prevalence of painkillers and prescribed substances, all age groups are at risk of prescription drug addiction, abuse and overdose.  And if that’s not enough, prescription drug abuse represents roughly $55.7 billion in healthcare, workforce, and criminal justice costs annually.

So what should we do?

Education tops the list.  Here in New Jersey, organizations like Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey and the Right Prescription for New Jersey program are educating parents, teens, pharmacists and schools about the risks of prescription drugs.  National Drug Take Back Initiatives are also promoting safer disposal of prescription drugs.

Public policy is also making a difference.  The New Jersey Prescription Monitoring Program (NJPMP) allows pharmacists to track patients obtaining drugs in large quantities or from multiple pharmacies. And the New Jersey Take Back Program and Project Medicine Drop provide a safe receptacle for unused prescription drugs to encourage proper disposal and control of prescribed substances in the home.

For the millions of Americans seeking treatment for prescription drug addiction, rehabilitation programs offer support for recovery. The New Jersey Consumer Affairs has reported a dramatic increase in admissions to substance abuse treatment programs resulting from prescription drugs, and calls for increased support, education and awareness of the risks and consequences related to prescription drug abuse. New Jersey is, in fact, one of three states receiving $7.5 million in federal funding toward drug treatment programs that includes training for emergency room staff, primary care physicians and pharmacists.

Finally, what can you do?

To learn more about this issue or to connect with organizations working to confront it, contact CFNJ.