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Campus Health News

Prescription drugs pose greater danger than illegal substances

Photo by Lórien MacEnulty 


In the years of 2000-2014, the United States experienced an approximated 300 percent increase in the number of opioid-related deaths, according to statistics revealed by the national Center for Disease Control.

The Iowa Department of Public Health announced that the Midwest alone experienced the most dramatic jump in heroin-related fatalities, leaping from less than one to over four deaths per 100,000 people.

This increase has led pharmacists and government officials to agree that the United States is immersed in an opioid abuse epidemic.

“Of course, as opioid use grows, we need to be concerned on our campus,” said professor Renae Chesnut, the dean of Drake University’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

The term “opioid” describes drugs that chemically bind with neurological receptors in the body, reducing the amount of pain an individual may experience.  The categorization extends to legal and illegal drugs, including heroin, morphine, fentanyl, and oxycodone, among others.

“While there are several people who are abusing this class of drugs, there are also many patients who legitimately need them for pain relief,” Chesnut said. “So, as we increase the regulations and access to these drugs, many of the patients who legitimately need them could be harmed.”

A National Health Institute study in 2012 said that 11.2 percent of Americans suffered from chronic pain.  Many of these individuals receive long-term opioid treatment to counteract the immense pain.

Despite this, however, abuse of legally obtained opioids is on the rise.  On average, 72-82.1 out of 100 patients in Iowa in 2012 were prescribed painkillers, according to the Intercontinental Marketing Services National Prescription Audit.

Various marketing techniques employed by the pharmaceutical industry and the high value placed on patient satisfaction contribute to the widespread abuse of legally obtained opioids.

According to a presentation assembled by Drake faculty, opioids “hijack the reward circuit” for survival type behaviors, including eating, drinking and sex. This partially motivates substance abuse because of enhanced release of dopamine, the hormone that makes people feel happy.

“As patients take the medication, they can develop a tolerance and addiction, and therefore need more of the medication to have the same effect,” Chesnut said. “… there is a misperception that prescription drugs have to be safe otherwise they wouldn’t be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Because of that notion, people often erroneously think that it doesn’t really matter what they take or how many.”

This is not the only motivation for individuals to disregard a doctor’s prescribed dosage. Chesnut described a particularly dangerous recreational trend known as pill or pharmaceutical parties, dubbed “pharm parties,” for short.

“Kids bring ‘pills’ that they have taken from their parents, grandparents or someone else’s medicine cabinets, dump them in a big bowl and then take pills to see if there is an effect,” Chesnut said.

The illegal possession of heroin has become an increasingly potent problem, as well. In 2015, 6,722 kilograms of heroin were seized by officials in the United States, compared to 2,763 kilograms in 2010, according to the National Seizure System.

Heroin-related mortality rates are strongly correlated with increased distribution of the drug in American communities. While all demographics have increased in illegal use of heroin, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2013 concluded that non-Hispanic white males aged 18-25 are most at risk of death by heroin overdose.

Increased awareness of this issue on college campuses may counteract the consequences, Chesnut said.

“Everyone can be at risk. However we are concerned for adolescent usage of prescriptions,” Chesnut said.  “Sometimes college students have injuries and are prescribed a pain pill (opioid) either then or after a surgery that they might have, which can lead to an addiction.”

Chesnut advised students to be responsible with their prescribed medication, taking opioids only when necessary and with doctor-approved dosages.

“Never take medications that were prescribed for someone else,” Chesnut said. “If you are aware that someone is experimenting or trying an opioid or heroin, report it. You may save their life.”

Access to Medication Assisted Treatment has been expanded to provide individuals with drug rehabilitation programs.

For more information, visit uconline.org or call (515) 280‑3860 if you are in need of rehabilitative aid.

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