Prescription drug use in the U.S. continues to rise, as almost 50 percent of people have used at least one prescription drug within the last month, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The number of people misusing these drugs, or using them without a prescription, is soaring as well.
"I've been saying for years now that prescriptions drugs is gonna be the number one drug problem in America anytime soon -- especially here," said LAPD Narcotics Det. Neil Spitz of South L.A.'s 77th Division.
Although marijuana and rock cocaine are still the area's mainstays when it comes to drugs, Spitz said that prescription pills such as oxycontin are quickly "climbing up the ladder" in frequency of use in the area.
This phenomenon isn't isolated to South L.A. either. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 5.9 percent of people in the U.S. between the ages of 18 to 25 used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons in 2010. This number far exceeds the less than 2 percent of young adults who used cocaine, and less than one percent who used methamphetamine.
So where do most of these young people get access to prescription drugs?
In a report issued by the White House last year called "Epidemic: Responding to America's Prescription Drug Abuse Crisis," the authors cited the statistic that 70 percent of people who abused prescription pain relievers got them from friends or relatives. Spitz added that many others get the drugs from doctors willing to give false prescriptions, or pharmacists illegally dispensing pills. Often times, it is even the individuals who have a legal prescription who then turn around and sell the drugs to make money, the detective said.
Spitz said tackling prescription abuse would require more regulations at every level, from the drug producers to the patients, and the only way to really change it would be new legislation. But pharmaceuticals are a massive and powerful industry in the U.S., he said. The industry's estimated to be worth $300 billion, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which makes up about 40 percent of the total world market share.
"Pharmaceuticals is big money," said Spitz. "We demand it; people will make it."
With the rise in frequency of use comes a significant uptick in pharmaceutical overdoses. Last year, the CDC reported that death toll from overdoses of prescription painkillers has more than tripled in the past decade -- equating to approximately 40 people dying every day from pain medications including Vicodin, Oxycontin and methadone.
“Overdoses involving prescription painkillers are at epidemic levels and now kill more Americans than heroin and cocaine combined, ” said CDC Director Thomas Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., in a statement. “States, health insurers, health care providers and individuals have critical roles to play in the national effort to stop this epidemic of overdoses while we protect patients who need prescriptions to control pain. ”
The prescription drug problem has become such a national issue the CDC has dubbed it an "epidemic" and the Office of National Drug Control Policy has released a four-prong approach to combat it which includes educating parents and youth and proper disposal methods for unused pills.