Doctors' Drugs Now More Lethal Than Street Dope?

By Jeff Forester 05/02/11

The number of deaths from accidental prescription drug overdoses continues to skyrocket, killing more people than cocaine and heroin ODs combined.

pill od.jpg
Prescription ODs on the Rise.
Photo via thinkstockphotos

On the nightly news we see the drama of drug busts, with cops rushing crack houses, their guns drawn, to protect the public good. But perhaps they are focusing on the wrong dealers. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry released a stunning report that unintentional overdose deaths in teens and adults have reached "epidemic" proportions. 27,500 people died from accidental drug overdoses in 2007, up from 26,400. The deaths are mostly due to prescription opioid painkillers, such as OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin. In 20 states, overdose due to prescription pain medication is the number one cause of injury deaths, outpacing automobile accidents and suicide. And 2007 was also the year that unintentional deaths from prescription drugs outnumbered accidental cocaine and heroin ODs combined.

Nationwide, unintentional overdose is the second leading cause of injury death. The reason for this epidemic? More doctors are prescribing more opioid painkillers to more patients. Dr. Matthew Monsein, pain management specialist from the Courage Center and Abbot Northwestern Hospital, told The Fix: “It is a lot easier for a doctor to start throwing out drugs, and then the doc gets to see the patient once a month for the rest of their lives because that is the way the law works; and the drug companies love it and it becomes an annuity, a fait accompli.” Despite the shocking statistics, most people still believe that if a doctor prescribes the medication, it is safe. Even among doctors who should know better, there is “still the perception that for people who have chronic non-cancer pain, it is appropriate to prescribe narcotics long-term.” In the short term, the number of accidental overdoses will continue to climb.  But the long-term consequences are more deeply troubling. Said Dr. Monsein, “We are creating a whole generation of people growing up addicted to opiates.”

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Jeff Forester.jpg

Jeff Forester is a writer in Minnesota. His book, Forest for the Trees: How Humans Shaped the North Woods, an ecological history of his state's famed Boundary Waters, came out in paperback in 2009. Jeff is the Executive Director of MN Lakes and Rivers Advocates MLR and you can follow him on Twitter.