Forget marijuana. The real, biggest drug threat in the U.S. comes from legal drugs, according to a new national report.
The 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says in 2013, more than half of the 46,000 deaths due to drug overdose in the U.S. were caused by prescription painkillers and heroin.
The DEA calls prescription meds, particularly opioid painkillers, the No. 1 drug threat in the U.S. today.
Why? Because the number of people reporting current use of controlled prescription drugs (CPDs) is more than those reporting use of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, MDMA and PCP combined.
Some facts from the report that paint the picture:
- The DEA reports “high CPD availability” in cities throughout the U.S.
- The regions with the largest reported CPD threat were New England, New York, New Jersey and the Southeast.
- The number of treatment admissions to publicly funded facilities for opiate/synthetic drug abuse in 2012 was 36.5% higher than in 2008.
- Drug overdose deaths have become the leading cause of injury death in the U.S. – more than those from motor vehicles or firearms.
- The number of drug poisoning deaths in 2013 involving opioid analgesics outpaced the number of deaths for cocaine and heroin combined.
- Fifty-three percent of nonmedical users of CPDs got the drugs they most recently used from a friend or relative for free.
- CPDs are also frequently diverted from the legitimate supply chain through doctor shopping, prescription forgery, employee theft (from pharmacies, hospitals, etc.), non-therapeutic prescribing by rogue practitioners, and burglaries or armed robberies of pharmacies and drug distributors.
- Healthcare costs of prescription drug abuse was estimated to be $3 trillion in 2014.
- Legitimate prescriptions for opioids steadily rose from 2006 to its peak in 2011 before declining slightly to current levels.
What caused the slight drop starting in 2012? States started to enact prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs). These programs collect data on substances dispensed in the state and make the information available through a statewide electronic database.
Here’s one example of the impact a PDMP can have. In Florida, the number of opiate treatment admissions increased 540% from 2002 to 2011. After the state created its PDMP in 2011, the number of treatment admissions declined 41% in one year. The number of oxycodone deaths declined 27% from 2012 to 2013.
All states and Washington, DC, have PDMPs on the books except Missouri.
How did prescription painkillers become such a big threat?
Federal authorities say the reasons include drastic increases in the number of prescriptions written and dispensed, greater social acceptability for using medications for different purposes and aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical companies.
And that creates the vicious prescription painkiller cycle that impacts safety in the workplace.
The all-too-common scenario: An employee gets injured at work, resulting in a chronic condition with chronic pain. A doctor prescribes an opioid painkiller when the employee “needs to work through the pain.” The employee becomes addicted to the painkiller, because the med wasn’t meant to be consumed on a long-term basis.
Even when doctors do the right thing, employees may seek painkillers from a friend or family member. When that supply dries up, they may seek the drugs illegally.
The DEA says the next step is often that the employee turns to heroin because it is cheaper.
Signs of that phenomenon have already registered at the DEA. While opioid abuse has started to drop somewhat since 2011, heroin abuse is increasing.
Result: You have more employees putting themselves and others at risk because they are under the influence of opioids or heroin.
What can employers do? Prevent workplace injuries and educate employees about the potential dangers of taking prescription opioids for more than a very short period of time.