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Stanton Peele

Stanton Peele

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Why Do We Now Have a Prescription Drug Abuse Problem?

Posted: 05/30/11 09:35 AM ET

Everybody's talking about it -- the fastest-growing drugs of abuse are prescribed painkillers, synthetic opiates like OxyContin. "Responding to America's Prescription Drug Abuse Epidemic" is the lead story at the Web site of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, for instance.

There's nothing surprising about these drugs' ascendance. Painkillers have always been Americans' number-one drug attraction, in direct descent from morphine to heroin to Demerol to Percodan to... the present.

The best painkillers provide a sense of detachment from stress and emotional incontinence; that's why soldiers in Vietnam loved the heroin there so much, although most overcame their addictions (even including those who sampled narcotics stateside) once they got home.

Now, it's harder to escape the duress that drove soldiers bogged down in Asia to require pain relief.

Kids learn from the earliest ages to accept and welcome pain relief in a bottle. We don't want our kids to hurt. The best way to do that is through pain meds. As Matt Dillon muses playing the addict protagonist in "Drugstore Cowboy," he feels sorry for civilians, who, unlike him, can't tell exactly how they'll be feeling a few moments after ingesting some powerful chemical substance from a drugstore container.

As I have explained in my books "Love and Addiction" and "The Meaning of Addiction," people seek most critically in addiction the certainty of an experience, especially that of powerful relief from pain and anxiety. Anything with that effect has strong addictive potential, and anyone raised to be not so much sensitive to pain as intolerant of it is a good candidate for addiction.

And so, the standard bromides for reversing our current (actually it's been more or less continuous) painkiller epidemic -- tell kids pills in bottles are dangerous (unlike the ones we often give them), keep pills away from kids (while we generate and distribute more such chemicals virtually by the day), be involved in their lives (isn't that what makes us give them pain pills in the first place?), and be good role models (does that mean we have to be able to tolerate pain ourselves?!) -- are useless. They're hypocritical self-contradictions, really.

The addicted society devolves to the easiest source of addictive relief, as it generates more and more addicts.

We have seen the enemy -- and it is us.