Painkillers, antidepressants, sleeping tablets - all these drugs are regularly prescribed by GPs or can be bought over the counter. And yet many of the mundane, everyday pills that fall into these categories can be as addictive, harmful and more difficult to kick than heroin or cocaine, the traditional villains of the chemical world. It is a problem that is quickly starting to eclipse that of illegal narcotics. Twelve out of the 20 most abused drugs are prescribed.
Nor is this just housewives on Valium needing to keep calm - addicts are increasingly taking prescription drugs for recreational purposes, a phenomenon propelled into the media spotlight following the rehab confessions of such stars as Melanie Griffith, Courtney Love and Matthew Perry. The latest reports from LA show a disturbing shift in the drug culture, in which cocaine and Ecstasy are being replaced as the partygoers' drug of choice by Vicodin, a potent combination of paracetamol and dihydrocodeine, which is now the most prescribed painkiller in the US. Controversial rapper Eminem proudly features a crushed Vicodin pill on an album sleeve, while a report in the March issue of Details magazine claimed that there is a new trend in Hollywood for "Vicodin Sunday" parties. At such events, bowls of "Vike", as it is commonly known, are laid out on coffee tables as if the drug were a cocktail snack, prompting comedian David Spade to quip at January's Golden Globe awards, "I found 10 Vicodin in my gift basket!"
The drug is relatively easy to get hold of, whether from a willing doctor, via a trip across the border to Tijuana or from dealers on the street, it is socially acceptable and users can continue to work and play apparently unhindered by any adverse effects. It is these three factors that have made it so popular.
In America, the level of misuse of prescription drugs is reaching epidemic proportions. In fact, it has become such a high-profile social issue there that a recent tongue-in-cheek "behind the scenes" episode of The Simpsons showed Homer admitting that he, too, was once addicted to painkillers. According to one government estimate, more than six million Americans have, at some point, used the drugs prescribed by their doctors in an unhealthy way. It has also been reported that more than 50 per cent of emergency room visits for drug-related problems are connected to prescription drug misuse or accidental overdose.
There has been a startling rise in the problem over the past few years. Results of a recent US Department of Health and Human Services survey showed that 1.5 million Americans started taking prescription painkillers for non-medical reasons in 1998, which is almost three times the number who started taking them in 1990.
As with most American trends, this is a problem that is making its way across the Atlantic. Vicodin cannot be obtained legally in this country, but is available to buy over the internet, while its closest equivalent, codydramol, is already on most UK doctors' prescribing rosters. Furthermore, there are many other alternatives that are all too easy to obtain.
"Prescription drugs can be bought on the internet," confirms Dr Robert Lefever, director of the Promis recovery centre in Kent, which has treated more than 2,500 patients with addictive disorders over the past 15 years. "But, to be honest, there is no shortage of doctors who will prescribe them." And likewise there is no shortage of British people who will abuse them. Between 1994 and 1999, there was an increase of 13 per cent in the number of prescriptions dispensed, and there are now approximately 530 million items prescribed yearly. It is estimated that more than a third of the UK adult population is on prescribed tranquillisers, antidepressants or sleeping pills.
Dr Graham Lucas, consultant psychiatrist at The Priory Hospital in Roehampton, has noted a particular rise in the abuse of minor analgesics. …