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Because they are legal, people believe that prescription drugs are safer than illegal “street” drugs.

The truth, however, is that prescription drugs can be just as dangerous, if not more so, than the illegal versions. Take heroin for example: the pharmaceutical industry created synthetic versions of heroin to treat mainly chronic pain in people where nothing else was working. OxyContin, Vicodin, Norco, Percocet, and Dilaudid are man-made forms of heroin that act in the same way and give the user the same euphoric and pain-free feelings that heroin gives its users.

The difference? The chemical compositions, and the law.

The level of addiction potential with prescription painkillers, and other pills like anti-anxiety medications, also known as benzodiazepines, that include Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, and Ativan, and prescription stimulants like Adderall, makes these pills no better than heroin, methamphetamines, or cocaine.

Sadly, the perceived safety, and generally easier access, causes many people, and especially young people, to underestimate the damage a little experimenting, or a little relief from pain or anxiety, is really having on their brain and body.

So what makes prescription drugs so appealing?

  • Does taking a pill seem less like drug addict behavior than smoking pot, crack, or meth?
  • Is the likelihood of getting caught so much lower than with a drug that creates a smell, or requires a needle?
  • The ease access of pills makes the use of prescription drugs a no-brainer to some?
  • Are the effects of prescription drugs more consistent and predictable for those who want to get high, but who do not want the same risk of overdose, or a bad drug batch, as many come with the use of heroin and other illegal drugs?
  • Is the lack of education and mainstream awareness of the dangers of prescription drugs almost giving young people and those with a prescription for pills, the green light, in a sense, to experiment and continue on with pill use since a doctor prescribed them?

Rates of prescription drug use are alarming. NIDA, The National Institute of Drug Abuse, reports that in 2010, in the United States alone, 16 million people answered yes to having used a prescription drug, for non-medical purposes, within the past year, and 7 million people, in the U.S., had abused a prescription drug within the last 30 days.

Marijuana Was The Gateway Drug

Years ago marijuana was coined “the gateway drug,” meaning that once someone was comfortable with smoking weed, it seemingly made that same person more comfortable experimenting with, and abusing, other, stronger drugs.

Now, though, it appears that prescription pills may be the new gateway drug. Young people are finding prescription opiates, stimulants, or anti-anxiety medications in their parents’ medicine cabinets, or friends have found pills in the same way, and everyone is sharing for experimentation purposes.

Stopping Is Difficult

The problem is, the ability to stop using prescription drugs after extended periods of use, is extremely difficult.

Also, when someone has been abusing a prescription painkiller, that comes in pill form, and then heroin in used in the meantime, the likelihood of a fatal overdose is high; the user does not know the appropriate dosage based on the number of pills being taken. There really isn’t a conversion rate for pills to heroin amounts. Heroin is cheaper, and obviously you do not need a prescription to get it, so when the painful symptoms of withdrawal begin, and someone is desperate, heroin can easily substitute.

If prescription pills are the new gateway drug, what can be done to convince anyone currently using, or interested in trying, prescription drugs not to go down that road?


Spreading the word that prescription drugs are harmful, and the gateway effect may lead a user to heroin, for example, when he or she cannot get the Vicodin or OxyContin that has become the drug of choice, is important for people to know.

About the author: Rebecca Berg is the business development associate for Shadow Mountain Recovery a recovery center for young men interested in an extended care program

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