Prescription drug abuse, Stylist - Kate Bussmann

Prescription drug abuse, Stylist - Kate Bussmann






From Hollywood names to career women,

prescription drug abuse is on the rise.

And what’s more it’s perfectly legal, socially

acceptable and 100% addictive…



n 4 January 2010, American

socialite and heiress to the

Johnson & Johnson fortune,

Casey Johnson, 30, became the

latest celebrity casualty to suffer

a premature death, rumoured to be caused by

an overdose of prescription painkillers. Her

body was found with pills listed in various names

from doctors and pharmacies throughout

California. Her tragic end followed that

of actress Brittany Murphy, 32, who died in

December 2009, and although a toxicology

report has not yet been released, is thought to

have been killed by a cocktail of legal painkillers,

anti-seizure and anti-anxiety medication. Actor

Heath Ledger died aged 28 after taking a deadly

combination of legal medication in 2008, Anna

Nicole Smith, 39, left behind a five-month-old

daughter, Danielynn, when she went into cardiac

arrest and died from

“combined drug

intoxication” (all were

legally prescribed drugs)

and Michael Jackson died,

aged 50, from “acute

Propofol intoxication”,

a prescription drug

administered by his

private doctor. The tragic

list is simply too long.

Indeed, prescribed

pills have proved more

addictive than heroin

amongst celebrity circles: Matthew

Perry, Jamie Lee Curtis, Cindy McCain

(wife of Senator and Republican

presidential candidate John McCain),

Robbie Williams, Kelly, Jack and Ozzy

Osbourne are just a few who have

struggled with prescribed medication

addiction. But you don’t have to live in

Hollywood to support a dangerous pill

habit. Millions of thirtysomething

professionals across the States are

pharmaceutical junkies. In America, legally

prescribed drugs kill 20,000 people a year,

twice as many as a decade ago and 17.5% higher

than deaths from illegal drugs. The fact is, the

number of people abusing prescription drugs is

greater than the number of those abusing

cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens

and ecstasy combined.

The problem is that the addictive nature

of these drugs is grossly underestimated.

“There are millions of people taking prescription

medication not realising they have the same

type of addictive potential as street drugs,”

says Dr Mehmet Oz, surgeon and author.

Although prescription drug abuse is not as

widespread in the UK, it is creeping in, with

approximately 1.5 million people estimated to

be addicted to anti-anxiety prescription drugs,

two thirds of whom are women. The UK charity

OverCount estimate that as many as 40,000

people have problems with codeine although

experts believe there could be more.

But the problem is not just one of

dependency, the dangers of taking prescription

drugs without medical advice are of accidental

overdose, combining drugs and creating lethal

combinations as well as the risk of taking

something you are allergic to or that may clash

with a known – or unknown – medical condition.

Abusing the system

America’s healthcare system seems to be at the

core of the US problem. In the UK most people

see a GP on the NHS, but the largely private

medical system in the US has made

‘doctor shopping’ much easier: addicts

will visit multiple doctors to feed their

habit. Doctors can also phone through

patients’ prescriptions to a pharmacy,

meaning you don’t even have to be

examined to get medication.

Recently, several states introduced

online prescription monitoring systems

which helped, but it’s not foolproof –

addicts use fake names,

or buy from illegal online

pharmacies. There’s also

a trend for ‘pill ladies’,

elderly prescription

holders who take

advantage of users’

addictions and sell

on their drugs.




Rod Colvin wrote

Prescription Drug

Addiction: A Guide

To Coping And

Understanding, after

his brother died following a 15-year addiction

to prescription medication.

“Doctors say this started when drug

companies began advertising medications on

television,” he says (this is illegal in the UK).

“It was no longer the doctor saying, ‘This is what

I think you should have’, it became the patient

saying, ‘This is what I want’. When my brother

was at the peak of his addiction, I asked one

of his doctors if he knew he had an addiction

problem. I couldn’t believe it when the doctor

replied: ‘Your brother is very demanding’.

In other words, it was ‘GOMER Syndrome’

– Get Out Of My Emergency Room.”

Online websites pushing prescription

drugs are worrying British campaigners.



A quick Google of “Buy

Valium” throws up 1m online

pharmacies. Not only is it illegal to buy

online, it also means doctors can’t

monitor your dose or your withdrawal

which is very dangerous.

Take the case of benzodiazepines

(ant-anxiety drugs): as with opiates,

a patient’s

tolerance can

build. The official

advice is that they


be prescribed for

more than two to

four weeks as the

withdrawal can

take months. The

dosage has to be

pared back under

supervision, or

you can suffer

horrendously painful

withdrawal symptoms.

“Most of the people

we see are getting them

in whole or partially off

the internet,” says Don

Serratt, the founder of UK

treatment centre, Life

Works (lifeworkscommunity.

com). He has seen a 10-20%

rise in admissions for prescription drug

addiction in the past year. “A lot of the

drugs on the internet are not made by

pharmaceutical companies, they’re bad

copies from China and other places.

They’re more dangerous.”

Politicians have taken notice:

a report by the Drugs Misuse

Parliamentary Group released last year

has already resulted in one new law –

the packaging on over-the-counter

codeine must now state that it is

potentially addictive and should not

be taken for more than three days.

One of the particular difficulties

faced by former addicts of prescription

drugs is that often, the original

symptoms that caused the drug to be

prescribed mirror the symptoms of

withdrawal. Three years ago, Clare

Morgan, 38, from Liverpool, was living

in Australia and working as a biologist.

She was prescribed drugs for what

appeared to be anxiety and depression

(she now believes they were hormonal

problems and has since been

treated for endometriosis) but the

antidepressants made her feel worse.

She was soon prescribed 11 psychiatric

drugs, including anti-psychotics and

anti-anxiety medication.

When she tried to come off

them, she suffered terrible anxiety – so

doctors put her back on. It was when

she was admitted to an institution and

offered electroconvulsive therapy that

she decided to return to the UK only

to be prescribed more drugs.

“It got so bad I tried to stab myself

– my dad stopped me,” she says.

“When I asked a psychiatrist if I was

in withdrawal, he said:

‘There’s no such thing.’ It’s

only recently that I’ve been

able to get angry because

I was in a state of terror

for so long.”

With charity Council For

Information On Tranquillisers,

Antidepressants And

Painkillers ( who

run meetings for prescription

and over-thecounter


addicts, she

weaned herself off.

“The problem is

being taken more

seriously now,” says

Dr Brian Iddon, MP





“Legally prescribed drugs kill

20,000 people a year, which is

17.5% more than illegal drugs”

and chairman of the

Drug Misuse


Group. “But there

should be more help

available, as well as separate treatment

clinics for prescription drug addicts.

The Department of Health is watching

to see whether things get worse, and

I think it’s likely that it will.”

Creeping killers

There are seemingly acceptable

prescription drugs that are potentially

addictive. Take codeine, a common

ingredient found in the everyday

painkillers we take without hesitation,

including Nurofen Plus, Solpadeine and

Feminax which become dangerous

when taken in excess, or over a

significant period of time. Codeine is an

opiate and can be grouped along with

heroin and methadone. Another legal

opiate is Oxycontin (a highly addictive

painkiller developed for cancer

sufferers) and Vicodin (used to treat

moderate to severe pain or severe

coughs). Opiates inhibit pain receptors

and create artificial endorphins in the

brain to produce warm, good feelings

we crave. Over time, opiates trick the

brain into stopping the production of

these endorphins naturally, so the only

way to experience positive feelings is

by using the necessary drug.

Then there are benzodiazepines,

which include Valium, Ativan and

Xanax. They induce extreme feelings of



Combining prescribed and

over-the-counter drugs can be

dangerous – be aware

Paracetamol + cold remedies:

Cold medicines such as Lemsip,

Calpol, Benylin and Beechams,

contain paracetamol, so taken

together or with a couple of

Panadol means you’re taking

more than double the

recommended dosage of

500mg-1g. As Pam Armstrong,

Founder of the Council For

Information On Tranquilisers,

Antidepressants And Painkillers

explains: “Paracetamol damage

builds up slowly with few

symptoms. If you take more

than six tablets a day you’ll

drastically damage your liver.”

Feminax (for period pain)

+ Solpadeine Max:

Both products contain

paracetamol and codeine, so it’s

risky to mix. Since the beginning

of 2010, all products containing

codeine are legally required to

tell you it can be addictive.

“Alcohol, paracetamol and

codeine all suppress your

breathing and put a strain on

your liver,” says Armstrong.

“Mix them and you’ll feel

intoxicated and dopey. More

than six in 24 hours is

considered an overdose.”

Benzodiazepines (eg Valium

or Xanax) + alcohol:

Benzodiazepines are

prescription and have a sedative

effect. “Benzodiazepines are

addictive and if you stop taking

them suddenly when you’re on

a high dose it could lead to

a heart attack,” says Armstrong.

“Combined with alcohol they

suppress your breathing, which

is particularly difficult if you

have asthma.”; 0151-932 0102

relaxation, promote restful sleep and

feelings of invulnerability. They are

now recognised as being harder to kick

than heroin and can become addictive

after just four weeks of continual use.

An easy fix

The misuse of these drugs in the US is

widespread. In a culture where stress

and 12-hour working hours are a signifier

of success, having a bottle of Xanax is a

badge of honour. Prescription drugs

fulfill a number of purposes without the

social stigma of an illegal drug fix. From

numbing anxiety, restlessness and

palpitations that come with living a

stressful life, to providing a hit of

productive energy to push a high

achiever through unrealistic deadlines.

Jeana Hutsell, 37, a marketing director

from Ohio, was addicted to painkillers

for five years following surgery for

Crohn’s disease. Her doctor prescribed

Tylenol with codeine (a combination of

paracetamol and codeine) and

Percocets (paracetamol and oxycodone).

“First it was one, then two, then two

didn’t work as well as three,” she says.

“My doctor wasn’t keeping track of

what he was prescribing so I’d get 120

Tylenol with codeine and 90 Percocets

every two weeks. Slowly, my whole life

disintegrated. I was at beauty school

but it soon became my job trying to

obtain drugs. When I moved to another

city, it wasn’t as easy to get pills, so

I started faking prescriptions. I’d

[Tippex] what the doctor had written,

photocopy it and write what I wanted.

I was young and attractive – I didn’t fit

the image of an addict.”

Sue*, a 42-year-old mother of three

from Pennsylvania, is a recovering

Oxycontin addict. Oxycontin is

a powerful opiate, like heroin, but one

which is released in stages over eight

hours. For an abuser this means

a longer, more consistent high than

heroin and one which means less

chance of overdosing. Sue was first

prescribed the drug for back pain

when she was 22, then found her

tolerance grew. When her doctor left

the practice her supply was cut off.

She eventually turned to crime to fund

her habit, and at 33 was jailed for

identity theft. In prison, she went

through withdrawal unaided.

“I know people who have killed

themselves going through withdrawal,

and if I’d had a gun in my cell, I would

have used it,” she says. “It took me two

months to recover, and while I was in

there, I lost my children, my house, my

car. When I was released, I went into

treatment, got a psychology degree

and trained as a drug counsellor. After

I’d been clean for five years, the judge

who put me in prison gave me a job.”

Back in the US, more than 5 million

Americans are now estimated to be

using pain-relieving medications for

non-medical reasons – as abuse is

growing, so are the overdoses. And as

the Internet makes it easier for drug

dealers to sneak into your living room,

doctors turn a blind eye and more

people attempt to medicate feelings

which can’t be dealt with simply

by swallowing a pill. It seems this

is one addiction that looks likely

to steal yet more lives before

something is finally done to help.



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