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Pill Popping: America’s Lethal Habit

By Ben Chernow | Position Paper

My first semester of college was a life changing experience; not only did I grow and mature as a person, but I witnessed a good friend of mine, Michael, destroy his life with drug abuse. Michael’s drug of choice was Xanax, a prescription pill categorized as a central nervous system depressant that serves to slow down normal brain function, and is prescribed to patients with anxiety and sleep disorders.  Although he began experimenting with prescription drugs in high school, it was not until college that he began regularly using pharmaceuticals and forming an addiction. Michael’s drug abuse totally transformed his life; his grades plummeted and he was forced to drop out of college.. As a person he completely changed; whereas he was once an enjoyable, intelligent, and charismatic young man who I was proud to call my friend, he became a gloomy, unmotivated, bitter, and drug- -addicted cynic without any interest in himself, his future, or anything not involving Xanax. Unfortunately, Michael’s story is not a unique happenstance but rather a reflection of the current American culture, more specifically the massive amount of prescription drug abuse and the lack of awareness and compassion for the issue. 

The widespread, seemingly common recreational prescription drug abuse currently being experienced in America is a consequence of many realities, but perhaps the worst influence is America’s popular culture,, a culture that seems to acknowledge and celebrate the recreational use of drugs, especially prescription drugs. Within the past five years public figures such as Michael Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith, Brittany Murphy, Heath Ledger, and Adam Goldstein (DJ AM) have all died from abusing prescription medications.  Rush Limbaugh, a prominent radio talk show host, publically confessed his addiction to prescription painkillers. Just last week, Sean Payton, a Superbowl winning NFL coach, was caught stealing prescription painkillers from his team’s medical facility. Popular musicians like Lil Wayne, Nirvana, and Eminem glorify the abuse of prescription medication, releasing songs like “Purple Pills,” “Valium,” “Lithium,” and “Pill Popping Animal.”  Lamentably, America has expressed approval toward this type of music, rewarding these artists with a combined total of sixteen Grammy awards, an award meant to commend exceptional and memorable music ( Not only do songs like these encourage the abuse of prescription drugs, they express admiration toward abusing prescription medication, and celebrate the euphoric sensation, or “high” generated from the abuse of these medications as if it were something to be proud of and emulated. 

Music is not the only facet of America’s culture that contains the abuse of pharmaceuticals,, it is prevalent in practically all phases of the media. Movies such as Role Models, Psycho, and Drugstore Cowboys all contain the abuse of prescription medication, and portray this behavior in a positive manner with characters who aspire to obtain and abuse these pills, flaunt their actions, and are revered for their drug usage. Television shows like House and The Sopranos both contain characters that regularly use prescription drugs recreationally  while rarely facing consequences or even inconveniences stemming from the habit. The precedents set by television, radio, films, music, and America’s culture in general is profoundly affecting Americans and causing more Americans to abuse prescription drugs. Prescription drugs are responsible for countless deaths, drug addictions, and arrests every year. Young people are especially vulnerable to prescription drug abuse, in large part because they are so impressionable and heavily influenced by the media. Actions must be taken to combat the rampant abuse of pharmaceuticals and the cultural acceptance of this habit, not only to protect America’s youth, but to protect all of America’s citizens from the dangers of prescription drug abuse.  

Prescription drugs are abused at such a high rate because they are highly potent, accessible, and perceived as safe by the American public. Despite the destruction and death caused by the high rate of pharmaceutical abuse, almost nothing has been done to change or repair this problem. In order to protect people from the dangers posed by these pills, major changes need to be made to drug education programs and laws regarding pharmaceuticals. These changes may prove to be deceivingly difficult, due to significant obstacles in the way of reform—p rimarily the large amount of power and influence held by the pharmaceutical industry, and the patients who legitimately need these medicines and properly use them. 

American drug abuse is not a new phenomenon; America has a long history of drug use.  According to Drug War Facts by Douglas McVay, eighty percent of the world’s narcotics are consumed in the US, along with ninety-nine percent of the world’s hydrocodone, the main ingredient in painkillers like Vicodin. Prescription drugs, specifically Vicodin, have recently surpassed marijuana as the most commonly abused drug in America, with 42.8 percent of Americans admitting to using prescription drugs without a prescription at least once, and 33.2 percent admitting to trying Vicodin (Teens and Prescription Drugs, 3). Susan Foster, director of policy research and analysis for the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, explains this increase in prescription drug abuse:: “[w]hen drug abuse of any type rises, it’s mainly due to a decreased ‘perception of harm’ connected with it in the public’s mind” (Clemmit, 845). It is easy to understand why people perceive prescription drugs to be safe; prescription drugs are not illegal, seemingly categorizing them with alcohol and tobacco (relatively safe substances) as legal or permissible drugs, and suggesting that they are safe. Moreover prescription drugs are provided by doctors, are purchased  from local pharmaciesr.], and have legitimate medical benefits, further insinuating the belief that these pills are safe. This false sense of security surrounding pharmaceuticals is one of the most dangerous facets of prescription drug abuse. 

The use of prescription drugs has increased at an alarming rate over the past twenty years. From 1992 to 2002, opiate prescriptions increased by 222 percent. During the same time span codeine prescriptions increased by twelve percent, fentanyl (a prescription anesthesia similar to morphine) prescriptions increased by 1,106 percent, hydrocodone prescriptions increased by 376 percent, methadone sales increased by 1,597 percent, morphine sales increased by 279 percent, and oxycodone prescriptions increased by 380 percent (Fisher, 261). This enormous increase in pill usage has, not surprisingly, led to an increase in fatalities stemming from prescription medications. From 1999 to 2004 prescription drug related deaths increased by one hundred and fifty percent, and continues to rise; the current mortality rate of pharmaceuticals is at a record high for any drug epidemic, surpassing the mortality rate of the heroin epidemic in the 1970s and the crack-cocaine epidemic in the 1990s (Inciardi, 104). Today, prescription drugs kill more people than car accidents (Clemmitt, 839). 

Prescription drug abuse is believed to have taken root in the early 1990s, in rural Maine, where the communities are small and isolated, often situated in the mountains and removed from any highways or major towns. As a consequence of their remote location, common street drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and heroin are not available. Also, many adults in these communities are employed as manual laborers like coal miners, loggers, fisherman, and other blue collar professions, and as a result many of them suffer from chronic pain and other illnesses. A disproportionately large percentage of the population in these communities take prescribed painkillers to deal with their physical pain, a habit that slowly evolved into a practice of self--medicating. Children in these areas began abusing these drugs as well, usually due to a boredom stemming from a lack of child friendly activities in these areas, and had easy access to these drugs from their parents. Drug abuse thus became normalized, integrated into the culture, and spread quickly to other rural areas like Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio (Inciardi, 105-106). Indications of this now widespread prescription drug abuse are not hard to discover, they are evident in many aspects of daily life throughout the country. 

Although it is not illegal to possess or use prescription drugs, it is illegal to sell prescription drugs, and someone caught doing this may be arrested and subject to sentencing and jail time. In 2006, there were 525 people arrested for selling prescription medications (Prescription Drugs Facts and Figures, 4). However, the sale of these drugs is not the only type of crime associated with pharmaceuticals , Keith Cooper, sheriff of Greenup County Kentucky, estimates that ninety percent of crime in Greenup County is related to prescription drugs. Cooper believes that many other crimes such as burglary and assault are due to prescription drugs, such as a robbery to obtain money to purchase prescription drugs or assaulting someone as a favor, so that they can obtain prescription painkillers for their bruises and pain (Zeller, OxyContin Express). Further supporting Cooper’s proposition is a study held by the Department of Justice in 2007 in which cash, jewelry, prescription drugs, and guns were identified as the four items most sought after in residential burglaries (Inciardi, 109). 

Not only do prescription drugs instigate crime throughout the nation, they are also deadly, since 2005 prescription drugs have killed 106,000 people annually (Fraser, Most illegal drugs can be fatal if taken in great quantities, as it will result in an overdose in the drug user. Not only are pharmaceutical overdoses lethal; but certain pill combinations are fatal as well. Other substances like alcohol magnify the effects of prescription drugs and can lead to death as well. Perhaps equally as detrimental as the lethal property of prescription medications is the addictive characteristic of these drugs; prescription opiates, like OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet, have a twelve and a half percent addiction rate, meaning that one out of eight people who try these drugs will become addicted (Chassin, 171). They are so addictive that, in 2004, over thirty percent of teens receiving treatment for drug addiction were being treated prescription opiates (Teens and Prescription Drugs, 5). Prescription opiates are categorized as opiates because they contain hydrocodone, or synthetic opium. Synthetic opium is opium that is created artificially rather than grown. As an opiate, pills like OxyContin are more similar to other opiates like heroin and opium than other pills like Xanax or Valium. Heroin and opium are notorious for their addictive qualities, but few people know that prescription opiates are equally addictive.

America’s ignorance of the dangers posed by prescription drugs is one of the major obstacles in combating the current rampant and widespread abuse of these medications. The obvious solution is to improve public awareness through the cultivation of drug education programs and public service announcements, a task more difficult than it appears. Peter Katel explains how former President George W. Bush inadvertently aggravated this problem through his anti-drug policies. Bush focused his anti-drug efforts on marijuana, a decision that proved to be futile as marijuana usage slightly increased during his term. This infuriated Congress, who consequently eliminated funding for federal anti-drug programs (Katel, 490). School anti-drug classes are also at fault because despite educating children about the dangers and hazards of illegal drugs, they largely ignore prescription drugs, thus creating children oblivious to the dangers posed by these pills and putting these children at risk. America’s youth is already evolving into prescription drug abusers with teenagers “popping pills” at an astonishing rate, compelling the Office of National Drug Control to investigate the matter. They released their findings in 2007 under the name Teens and Prescription Drug Abuse. Teens and Prescription Drug Abuse is a listing of statistics concerning teenage drug abuse that highlights the severity and extent of their prescription drug abuse. Some of the more unsettling statistics include the fact that nineteen percent of teens admit to abusing pharmaceuticals at least once, thirty percent believe pills are not addictive, and forty percent of teens agree that pills are safer than illegal drugs (Teens and Prescription Drug Abuse, 2-6). These statistics reflect the danger of not educating kids about the risks of prescription drugs, mainly widespread pharmaceutical abuse and utter ignorance to the damage this abuse is causing their bodies. 

Another contributing factor to the hazardous nature of prescription drug abuse is their accessibility; prescription drugs are shockingly easy to acquire. Unlike illegal drugs, which are purchased from drug dealers and criminals, prescription drugs can be obtained from friends, family members, or a household medicine cabinet. Over sixty percent of teens who abuse prescription drugs claim they receive these drugs very easily and free of charge from either family members or friends. Approximately fifty four percent of students who receive prescription drugs say that their friends have approached them and requested to purchase drugs from them (Zeller, OxyContin Express). Prescription drugs can also be obtained online, allowing people to purchase these drugs in massive quantities without the possibility of legal repercussions. 

The reasons for abusing pharmaceuticals are personal, and vary from person to person. Other than the obvious reason of  getting “high”I wouldn’t use quotation marks around this phrase, and I think it’s ‘high’ not hi.] people also use prescription drugs to relieve pain and anxiety, sleep better, and to increase alertness and concentration (Hamilton, 895). This is problematic for multiple reasons, using prescription sleeping pills like Ambien to fall asleep can become extremely habit forming and thus addictive, taking painkillers or depressants, like OxyContin or Xanax, to relieve pain or anxiety has serious health repercussions. These medications have proven to have long term effects on the heart, liver, brain, and lungs. Stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall are classified as amphetamines, and affect the body in ways similar to other amphetamines like cocaine and ecstasy. Long term use of prescription stimulants has been proven to cause cardiovascular disease and hypertension (Hamilton 896-897). 

Despite all the dangers regarding prescription drug abuse some people believe prescription drugs can serve as a safer alternative to illegal drugs. Throughout history Americans have proven that they crave the euphoric sensation brought on by drugs; drug abuse has been common in America since the 16th century (Katel, 491). If drug abuse in America is assumed to be an unavoidable reality, then some people insist that, since prescription medications have legitimate medicinal benefits and can be monitored by a doctor, that pills can provide a safer “high” than the “high” provided by illegal drugs. Prescription drug abuse does have some advantages over illegal drug usage, certain illegal drugs like heroin and crack-cocaine have been proven to spread diseases such as HIV and hepatitis in areas with high rates of abuse (Gamella, 140). Prescription drugs cannot spread disease. Prescription drugs can also help treat symptoms that cause people to begin using illegal drugs.  Some people use crystal methamphetamine, a substance severely detrimental to one’s health, to cope with intense feelings of depression, guilt, and anger. In certain circumstances, such as extreme depression and anger, prescription drugs should be used but it is the responsibility of doctors nationwide to identify these instances and properly diagnose these people. When prescription drugs are provided by a doctor, and taken under their supervision, it is not prescription drug abuse, but rather the intended purpose of prescription drugs; to treat patients with serious conditions and illnesses. Prescription drug abuse occurs when people obtain these drugs without a doctor’s knowledge, and takes them at their own discretion.  This is certainly not a safe alternative to illegal drugs, which kill 17,000 people annually (McVay, Drug War Facts). While that is a large number of fatalities, it does not compare with the 106,000 people killed by prescription drugs every year  – cited statistic previously claiming that prescription drugs are a safe alternative to illegal drugs implies that the abuse of pharmaceuticals is safe, an utterly false idea. 

Despite all the problems created by prescription drug abuse, these drugs cannot simply be suppressed, nor can the pharmaceutical industry that manufactures these drugs simply be restricted. Millions of people legitimately need the drugs produced by these pharmaceutical companies; forty six percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug every day (Prescription Drugs Facts and Figures, 3). Although some of these drugs can be abused recreationally, most of them cannot.., It is also unfair to deny treatment to sick people just because some people choose to abuse the same substances that help these sick people get better. Prescription drug abuse also creates additional profits for pharmaceutical companies, which as publicly traded companies have a commitment to their shareholders to maximize sales and profits. Marvin Seppala, chief medical officer of the Hazeldon Foundation (an addiction treatment facility) explains, “If I’m a pharmaceutical manufacturer, making remarkable sales partly because people are misusing the drugs, I don’t have much motivation to change that” (Clemmitt, 840).  Pharmaceutical companies are driven to seek these additional profits, and this corporate greed, however selfish or compassionless it may appear, is a very real obstacle in overcoming prescription drug abuse. Further, applying the law of supply and demand, the fundamental law of economics, to this situation helps to identify an additional problem; as long as people desire to purchase these drugs, someone will supply them, and if pharmaceutical companies are not providing them, someone else will.  

Prescription drug abuse in America has surpassed the point of being a moderate problem or concern, it has evolved into a national pandemic and a very serious threat to the future. America’s youth is in trouble, they are unaware of the risks posed by prescription drugs, and many have already began recreationally using these drugs. There is no simple solution to this problem, prescription drugs are needed to care for sick and suffering people, and it is essentially impossible to monitor personal medicine cabinets nationwide. The first step in fixing this problem is improving our drug education programs, ideally reinstating federal drug education programs, but at least seriously discussing the dangers posed by prescription drugs in school health classes. Simple acts like teaching which pill combinations are fatal may not curb prescription medication abuse but could save thousands of lives. Something as basic as bringing attention to the matter could benefit countless children, and hopefully save them from a fate similar to Michael’s. Michael is not a poster child for prescription drug abuse, he is one of many whose life has been irreparably altered by prescription drug abuse. He was unaware of the risks regarding his behavior and perhaps he would have made better choices if he had been more informed about the effects of prescription drugs. We cannot stop teenage drug abuse altogether, but we can inform teens about the potential consequences of these actions in the hope that will make safe choices, and minimize drug related fatalities.



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