While Pennsylvania is focused on the legalization of marijuana under S.B. 528, (introduced on April 3 2013 by Senator Daylin Leach), which has more recently been supported by the NAACP at their press conference of 4 July; the behind the scenes campaign to raise awareness about prescription drug abuse continues unabated.
A National Epidemic
The abuse of prescription drugs for non-medical purposes is such a serious problem nationally that the importance of raising awareness of it amongst the public, particularly amongst parents of teens, cannot be overstated. Mainline Health Organization report that 63% of young adults who have used marijuana at some point also abused prescription drugs; and more than 15% of high school seniors reported abuse. The common perception is that joining in with this activity helps with studying, weight loss and being accepted by their peers. Because the drugs are prescription drugs, many youth think that this makes their participation acceptable. The truth is that use of any prescription drug by someone for whom it was not prescribed is illegal.
Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS)
The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency carries out the Pennsylvania Youth Survey every two years, with the most recent completed survey having been done in 2011. This survey focuses primarily on alcohol, tobacco and other drug use in young people. It seeks to quantify and qualify the problems faced within youth culture and to identify strategies to counter drug use through information and prevention programs.
The 2011 survey was modified on the previous 2009 survey to include more specific questions about the use of prescription drugs. The questions were designed to measure the prevalence of use across the three prescription drug categories of: pain relievers; tranquilizers; and stimulants.
Accurately recording the levels of prescription drug abuse is not easy. With so many prescription medicines subject to abuse, it is difficult to collate a comprehensive list. Many youth do not differentiate between preparations available over the counter and prescribed drugs; often they may not be able to identify the names of the prescription drugs they have used. The questions in the survey specified particularly that drugs were taken without a doctor’s orders.
It is important to note that this 2011 survey does not include information from the School District, the largest and most urban area in Franklin County. Chambersburg Police Department says that prescription medicines form a significant proportion of the drugs abused in the area.
Across the state, 6th graders reported a lifetime prevalence of pain reliever abuse of 1.1%, compared to 13.1% for 12th graders. When asked about use within the 30 days immediately preceding taking the survey, 6th graders reported 30 day usage of 0.8%; with 12th graders reporting a higher percentage of usage at 7.9%.
In the case of tranquilizer abuse, there was a lifetime prevalence of 0.1% in 6th graders, compared to 6.1% of 12th graders. Past 30 day prevalence was 0.1% for 6th graders and 3.2% for 12th graders.
The use of stimulants was slightly higher with a lifetime prevalence of 0.2% in 6th graders and 8.2% for 12th graders. When it came to use during the 30 days immediately preceding the survey, 0.1% of 6th graders reported usage, with 4.9% for 12th graders.
These figures represent a small decrease over the 2009 figures, which is welcome news. Students perceived a higher risk of harm in the 2011 survey than in the 2009; however, the perceived risk of harm decreases with age, both from the point of view of the students and of their parents.
The Story Behind the Statistics
The reality behind the statistics quoted in reports and surveys is that people die from . In Lackawanna County, for example, there were 48 deaths related to prescription medication abuse in 2012. Since 2008, the county has averaged 41 deaths a year related to this abuse. Nationally, drug overdose rates have sky rocketed and now stand at three times the rate given by federal statistics in 1990. In 2008, over 26,000 died from drug overdoses, many of which were caused by prescription drugs. Part of the background of is the genetic predisposition some have for some drugs. A significant number are initially prescribed drugs for genuine reasons, but develop an addiction. Some become addicted through using prescription medicines for recreational purposes. It is common for people who abuse drugs in this way to obtain them from friends and family; while some doctors knowingly over-prescribe to their patients.
Craig LeCadre, senior supervisory special agent with the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office, has spent 24 years in drug enforcement. He sees education, both of youth and of their parents as the solution to the growing problem, though he admits that parents can be hard to reach. Many people do not recognize the dangers of prescription drugs; while they may talk to their children about illegal drugs, they forget to let them know that prescription drugs should not be shared with anyone other than the person for who they are prescribed. The danger of addiction and overdose, whether from a single drug or a combination is still not high enough in public awareness.