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Prescription Drug Abuse in America in 2023-2024

Last Updated: November 14, 2022

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It’s no secret that America has a drug problem. Seemingly endless public service announcements highlight the dangers of illegal drugs, and a steady stream of news reports and celebrity gossip columns remind us that drug overdoses can happen in small-town USA or in luxurious mansions. While illicit substances like cocaine and methamphetamine remain issues throughout the country, a different class of drugs has taken the spotlight as America’s drug crisis rages on — opioids. This class of drugs includes both opiates, derived naturally from the opium poppy plant, and synthetic opioids, manufactured substances designed to mimic the effects of natural opium. These drugs can be found in a variety of forms, both legal and illegal. Prescription opioids, also known as prescription painkillers, have become a popular staple in medicine cabinets across the United States, resulting in devastating misuse, addiction and overdose.

Prescription opioids include a wide variety of drugs available with a doctor’s script. Common prescription pain medications include oxycodone (OxyContin and Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin and Lortab), tramadol (Ultram), morphine (Kadian and Avinza), and more.

Although these powerful medications can help manage pain for some, for many in the United States, these drugs can fuel all-consuming addictions. In 2015, opioid overdoses accounted for more than 33,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Roughly half of these cases, or 15,000, involved a prescription opioid.

Ohio has been particularly hard-hit by America’s opioid crisis, with prescription drug addiction often escalating to illegal (and cheaper) opioids like heroin, which is often easier to come by as stricter regulations limit access to prescription pills. Despite an 81 million dose decrease from 2011 to 2015, prescription drugs still accounted for 21% of overdose deaths in the Buckeye State in 2015.

The rate at which Americans are using, abusing, and overdosing on prescription medications is alarming — and no coincidence. With a still-heavy influx of scripts and relatively easy access, prescription drug abuse is a national issue that can only be resolved by large-scale change and a cultural attitude shift.

Why Are So Many Drugs Prescribed in the United States?

The United States is the world’s largest prescriber of opioids. According to data collected by the United Nations, the country far outranks every other nation in the world for opioid consumption, with a standard daily dose per million people of 50,000. Ohio is no exception to this trend, peaking in 2012 with one of the highest rates of opioid prescriptions in the country at 793 million pills.

This extreme drug prescription and consumption rate can’t be traced to simple causes like an aging population or widespread increases in pain. In fact, opioid deaths were highest in people between the ages of 45 and 54, and Americans have reported no significant increases in pain since the sale of prescription opioids quadrupled in the United States from 1999 to 2014. While a number of factors are at play, high rates of prescription drug use in the U.S. are most directly driven by loose prescription regulations and the influence of large pharmaceutical companies.

While there is little conclusive information pointing to the long-term effectiveness of opioid medications for relieving pain, an estimated 1 out of 5 patients with non-cancer pain or pain-related diagnoses are prescribed opioids. Why then do doctors dole these drugs out to so many people? For one thing, there are no set standards across the U.S. that dictate when it’s appropriate to prescribe an opioid. Because of this, attitudes toward prescribing vary dramatically from doctor to doctor and from state to state. Depending on the physician a patient sees, they could be given opioids for an injury as minor as a sprained ankle. If this patient is unaware of the addictive nature of these drugs, what started as legal medical use can quickly spiral into a substance use disorder.

See More: Prescription Drug Abuse Hotline 

While the United States makes up just 4% of the world’s population, it accounts for nearly 30% of the world’s drug overdose deaths. Roughly half of these deaths can be attributed to prescription drug use.

Lack of regulation doesn’t just affect what opioids can be prescribed for; it also affects who can prescribe them. While prescription pain relievers are only administered by specialists in Europe and most other developed countries, they can be prescribed by primary care physicians in the United States. According to the CDC, primary care physicians write half of the nation’s opioid pain reliever prescriptions.

Because individual states are left to create their own prescription drug monitoring programs, there is no centralized system of opioid prescription monitoring in the country. The large number of medical professionals who can prescribe opioids, combined with this lack of national regulation, make it easy for patients who are already addicted to “doctor shop.” Doctor shopping is a practice where patients go from doctor to doctor until they find a physician who will prescribe opioids to them.

The influence of pharmaceutical companies also plays a major role in how doctors and patients think about prescription drugs. While many countries in the developed world have nationalized health care systems where doctors and pharmaceutical companies serve the needs of people instead of profits, the United States uses a privatized, fee-for-service form of healthcare that sometimes leads to corruption and conflicts of interest. This has led to lax regulations seen in the case of prescription opioids. In the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies pushed physicians to prescribe pain-relieving drugs to their patients despite the deadly side effects of frequent use. In the years since, addiction and overdoses from these same drugs have skyrocketed. While the opioid epidemic still rages on, government institutions and rehabilitation centers alike are working to help individuals break free from the bonds of addiction and move toward a brighter future.

Who Abuses Prescription Drugs?

Addiction doesn’t discriminate, especially when it comes to prescription opioids. While some may seek out pain pills specifically to get high, many come by them on accident — quite literally. Painkillers are often prescribed after car accidents, following surgery, or to treat chronic pain. And because prescription opioids are legal and regulated, many people do not acknowledge the addictive and dangerous qualities that they share with their illicit counterparts.

Prescription opioid addiction can impact people of any gender, age, income level or cultural background. From schools and office settings to rural homes and city streets, these drugs can be used by anyone. Because prescription painkillers are often administered medically, it’s relatively easy to develop a dependence. And because so many Americans have prescription medications stored in their medicine cabinets, it’s easy for teens and others to access them without a prescription.

While prescription opioids can be extremely effective in treating pain, they can also cause the user to experience a euphoric high, and may become addictive. Nonmedical use of prescription pain pills is a key issue that may result in life-threatening consequences. For teenagers, recreational use of painkillers is especially dangerous. While some teens find themselves dependent on pain pills after a sports injury or wisdom teeth extraction, others seek out the medications specifically to get high. The American Society of Addiction Medicine indicates that 276,000 adolescents used pain relievers for nonmedical purposes in 2015. Of those who used painkillers to get high, 122,000 struggled with prescription painkiller addiction.

See More: Commonly Abused Drugs

Ohio teens are no exception when it comes to prescription painkiller use. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that from 2013–2014, 45,000 Ohio children aged 12–17 reported nonmedical use of pain relievers. That’s 4.9% of the age group and up from the national average of 4.7%.

When it comes to prescription drug misuse, there is no typecasting. That’s why it’s so important to understand the risks and signs of addiction. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction or exhibits some or all of the following signs, it may be time to get help.

Signs of Prescription Opioid Addiction:

  • Slowed breathing
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Drowsiness
  • Constipation
  • Confusion
  • Secretive or paranoid behavior
  • Downplaying drug use or hiding dosages

How to Treat Prescription Opioid Addiction

Although prescription drug use and addiction is prevalent throughout the United States, so are resources to help. New legislation and guidelines are being implemented to reduce the proliferation of prescription opioids for minor issues. While they can be helpful and even life-saving for those suffering from severe pain, some types of chronic pain can be managed without opioids. Consult your doctor to learn more about other methods of pain management.

Some alternatives to prescription opioids for chronic pain include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Physical therapy
  • Massage therapy
  • Daily yoga or other exercise practices
  • Injections

For those who are addicted to prescription painkillers, however, overcoming physical and mental dependence can be a struggle. There are several options for those suffering from prescription drug addiction.

Some options for overcoming opioid addiction include:

  • Medical detox
  • Comprehensive inpatient care programs
  • Local outpatient therapy
  • Medically assisted treatment
  • Individual or family counseling
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy

If you are ready to take the first step toward healing from prescription opioid addiction, The Recovery Village is here to help. With treatment centers located throughout the country, including a convenient location in Groveport, Ohio, The Recovery Village’s collection of drug and alcohol rehab centers can address opioid addiction, as well as co-occurring mental and behavioral health disorders. By treating the whole person, The Recovery Village aims to help people overcome addiction by looking at the source along with the symptoms. With the help of dedicated and compassionate medical professionals, you can find the tools you need to overcome substance use disorder and enjoy a life free from the negative effects of prescription opioid use.

If you or someone you love is ready to seek treatment, call The Recovery Village today to learn more about inpatient, partial hospitalization, outpatient, aftercare and sober living programs.


Our Recovery Advocates are ready to answer your questions about addiction treatment and help you start your recovery.