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Prescription Drug Abuse in Massachusetts

What Is Prescription Drug Abuse?

Prescription drugs are generally considered to be safe when used according to doctor’s instructions. However, some of these drugs have euphoric, stimulating or relaxing effects that people come to enjoy. These desired effects have caused millions of people across the United States to develop a dangerous dependency to prescription medications.

When these drugs are used more frequently or in larger doses than intended by a doctor, it is considered abuse. Abuse often leads to addiction, which causes the person to experience a physical need for the drug. Without the substance, addicts will experience extremely unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal. Addictions can develop very quickly, especially with potent pain relief pills.

Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics in Massachusetts

The abuse of opiates is the leading drug problem in Massachusetts. Heroin is the state’s most commonly abused drug, at a rate of about six times that of the next most commonly abused illegal drugs (cocaine and marijuana) according to studies by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Much of the heroin epidemic is fueled by pain pills – both are opiates, and when addicts can no longer afford or acquire their pills, they often turn to heroin as a substitute.

In early 2015, the governor of Massachusetts declared the abuse of pain pills and heroin to be a public health emergency. In response, the state has rolled out a strategic plan to control abuse and overdoses, including collecting more detailed data at the individual county level and getting insurance companies more involved in the prescription process for pain pills.

Deaths due to opioid overdose have increased to over 1,000 per year in the state. This represents a surge of almost 50% since 1999, according to data collected by the Trust For America’s Health. In addition to the spike in overdose deaths, pill and heroin abuse by teenagers has greatly increased in recent years and now exceeds the national average.

Which Drugs Are Abused?


As mentioned, the most powerful pain pills are usually derived from opium. They are considered safe to use when they are only used for a short duration (for example, when recovering from surgery) and only in the limited dosages that a doctor prescribes.

These pills induce a sense of euphoria and also dull anxiety and other unpleasant mental symptoms, however. Patients may enjoy these feelings and begin using the pills more frequently than they should and continuing to use them longer than is needed for their pain.

OxyContin is perhaps the most well-known of these pills. Some others that are frequently prescribed include codeine, hydrocodone (Vicodin and Lorcet), fentanyl (Fentora) and meperidine (Demerol).


Stimulants are rarely prescribed as medicine. The one condition where this is an exception is Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). The two most popular treatment drugs, Ritalin and Adderall, are both stimulants and can both become addictive if they are abused. Unfortunately, abuse of these drugs is quite common as college and high school students feel that they give them a mental edge.


Certain types of sedatives are addictive, namely barbiturates and benzodiazepines. Some of the common trade names for these include Seconal, Luminal, Valium and Xanax.

Methaqualone (more commonly known as Quaalude) is also a very addictive sedative. Production and use of it is no longer legal in the United States, but it can still be obtained illegally, as well as in other countries.

Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse

The specific signs of drug abuse can vary with each different type of drug. However, there are some behaviors that are common to prescription drug addicts. They will often go “doctor shopping”, or making an unusual amount of visits to different doctors in an attempt to get more pills than they are supposed to. They may try to justify this by claiming they “lost” their prescription. There are also usually some sort of sleep disturbances and noticeable mood swings when someone is abusing a prescription drug. They may also become socially withdrawn, and begin stealing to support their drug use.

Drug Categories

The United States government classifies drugs according to a “drug schedule.” The higher up a drug is in the schedule, the more it is regarded as potentially dangerous and having little to no medicinal value. The drug schedule also determines the penalties for illegal possession and sale of these drugs to a great degree.

Since prescription drugs are generally regarded as having significant medicinal value, they are usually on the lower rung of the drug schedule. The most addictive of these, such as the strongest opiate pain medications, are in Schedule II. Ritalin and Adderall are also in Schedule II.  The addictive sedatives are generally listed in Schedule IV.

How Prescription Drug Abuse Affects the Brain

The addictive prescription drugs affect the “reward center” of the brain. The brain’s natural production of hormones that induce well-being, such as dopamine and serotonin, is disrupted as these drugs block their receptors. Over time this leads to a physical need for the drug, with cravings that are even more powerful than those for food and water. Certain drugs can also kill brain cells and cause brain damage with abuse.

Health Risks of Prescription Drug Abuse


Overdose is the greatest risk of short-term abuse for any drug. With high enough doses, opioids can dangerously slow breathing (respiratory depression) to the point where it can be fatal. They can also interrupt a woman’s menstrual cycle. Depressants can trigger seizures and can also be fatal in high enough doses. And stimulants can cause paranoia and anxiety, disrupt sleep and cause a dangerous rise in blood pressure and heart rate.


Each of the prescription drug types has their own long-term health dangers. Opiates have been known to cause cardiovascular disease (potentially leading to heart failure) and greatly increase the risk of developing osteoporosis. Ritalin and Adderall can cause chronic anxiety and paranoia to the point of being indistinguishable from paranoid schizophrenia. Sedative abuse can cause impaired memory and chronic sleep problems, especially when benzodiazepines are abused.

Treatment Options for Prescription Drug Addiction in Massachusetts

In all cases, the place to start for treatment of any prescription drug issue is with a detox period. This is a period of supervised care that usually lasts for several days, in which the patient is given medical support to help them through the initial intense cravings for the drug and withdrawal symptoms.

Depending on the type of addiction and its severity, patients may then move on to either inpatient treatment at a certified medical facility, or home-based outpatient treatment. With serious and severe addictions, inpatient treatment is usually needed and shows the greatest success rates by far.

Whichever option is chosen, it is important to get help and not attempt to tackle an addiction alone. With dedication and support, proper care has the ability to turn lives around.