Painkiller Abuse A ‘Huge Problem,’ Conference Participants Are Told
By David Hasemyer
Union-Tribune Staff Writer
Abuse of prescription painkillers has become so extensive that the drugs are being called the “new heroin” by leading drug authorities, who say the matter is becoming a national crisis.
The abuse of these powerful painkillers was the topic of a one-day conference yesterday in Balboa Park, where medical experts and drug officials cautioned that more people are becoming addicted to these drugs than to illegal street drugs.
This new generation of addicts has discovered that synthetic opiates such as OxyContin induce the same intense euphoric high as cocaine and heroin. Medical and law enforcement officials have discovered these addicts break the same laws and suffer the same consequences as people hooked on cocaine and heroin.
“It’s a huge problem,” said retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who served as the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy between 1996 and 2001. “The abuse of these synthetic opiates comes with the same personal consequences as abuse of heroin.”
McCaffrey, who is now a national security professor at West Point, was the keynote speaker at the conference sponsored by CRC Health Group Inc., one of the largest providers of chemical dependency treatment in the country.
Conference participants sought to define the problem of prescription drug abuse along with discussing new ways to treat and prevent addictions.
There are an estimated 980,000 heroin users in the country, while 1.4 million people are hooked on prescription painkillers, experts say. In San Diego, admissions for treatment of painkiller addiction at CRC clinics have jumped from 5 percent of all cases five years ago to 25 percent today.
“The abuse of these drugs touches the lives of people beyond the abusers,” said Phillip Herschman, a clinical psychologist who is president of CRC’s Opiate Treatment Program. “It affects their families. It affects the people they come in contact with.”
He used an example of a physician addicted to the drugs: “Think of the number of lives that could be affected by that one individual’s drug abuse.”
Along with the sensational narcotic effect for users, there is the false belief that these drugs are safer because they can be legitimately obtained with a prescription, Herschman said.
“These drugs are dangerous.”
There is a distinction to be drawn between people who have made the choice to abuse these drugs and those people who have become dependent on them to combat chronic pain, McCaffrey said.
Some of the most widely abused drugs – OxyContin, Vicodin and Dilaudid – are prescribed for patients with severe pain. Some people have no other means of overcoming the pain and they accept the potential consequences of long-term dependency.
McCaffrey said he doesn’t want to see physicians held responsible as an unintended consequence of the illicit use of prescription painkillers.
“The fact that these are legal narcotics and can provide great relief to chronic pain sufferers under the care of a doctor is a good thing,” McCaffrey said.
“The fact that these drugs are being used by people as a means of getting high is a bad thing.”