Prescription Drug Addiction: Basic Facts

Prescription drugs are the most commonly abused drug in North America, far outranking any other intoxicant. The reasons for this vary from region to region, but the simple fact is that many prescription pills are a stronger narcotic than can be found in their illegal counterparts. Combined with their ability to be legally prescribed and a high market value, it is easy to see why those who do not wish to immerse themselves in the criminal world of drugs would instead opt for the relative safety of the medical community.

Another factor is that there is a underlying belief that most people have is that if a drug is legal, it is not harmful—or not at least as harmful as an illegal drug. This could not be farther from the truth. Simply because a drug is not illegal does not mean that there are not significant risks involved with abusing prescription medication, that potential for addiction, long term side effects, and death are not possible.

In fact, since there is such a ready supply of drugs to be abused, the potential (and reality) of widespread addiction to prescription drugs is nothing new.

Different Types of Prescription Drugs

Prescription drugs that are most commonly abused fall into three major categories:

  • Prescription opioids
  • Prescription stimulants
  • Prescription depressants

Prescription opioids are commonly painkillers—drugs that mimic opiates such as morphine and heroin but are synthetic as opposed to naturally derived from plants. Examples of opioids that are most widely abused are:

  • Oxycontin
  • Darvocet
  • Oxycodon

Addiction to these drugs can occur even when specifically following recommendations from a doctor, but due to their ability to mimic in-demand but hard to find drugs such as heroin, often people will fake symptoms in order to obtain a prescription, only to re-sell the drugs on the street for money.

Examples of abused prescription stimulants are:

  • Amphetamines
  • Concerta and Ritalin
  • Adderall

These drugs, like all prescription drugs, have legitimate medical uses—amphetamines are used for narcoleptics, and children and adults who suffer from ADHD benefit from the cognitive effects of drugs such as Ritalin. But a generation of children who grew up overdiagnosed with ADHD became very familiar with the effects of Adderall and Ritalin, and when they got older realized that even if they did not have the disorder, the drugs were useful for their ability to allow them to focus on tasks for long periods of time, such as studying for a test. Thus the market for “smart drugs” was born, and anyone who wants an edge X the competitive college and post-college job market is tempted to abuse these drugs.

Examples of abused prescription depressants are:

  • Valium
  • Xanax
  • Soma

These drugs are used for their mood altering effects. Some may intensify the effects of other drugs, others may just be used for their numbing effects. Recreational users often combine these drugs with alcohol for the muscle-relaxing effects as well. Again, the problem is the belief that these drugs can do little harm and there is little risk involved with their abuse.


Addiction and chemical dependence is a large risk when abusing prescription medication, as is severe liver damage when combining these medications with other drugs or alcohol. As the public becomes more aware of the problems that legal drugs can cause, it is important to emphasize that ALL drugs carry with them inherent risks. This not just because they are illegal or legal, but because they alter the delicate body chemistry of a person. The effects that any prescription drug can have on a person—even if it is not fatal—is very real and should not be done lightly by anyone, whether they are a doctor or not.