Last week Whitney Houston died at the relatively young age of 48. Whilst the story is yet to fully unfold, it seems that prescription medications were involved in her death. This would put her in the company of Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson to name but two who have died of overdoses of prescription medication.

Previously I wrote about the Buddhist view on death and how it should not come as a surprise. Whilst this remains true on one level (we will ALL die), the timing can come as a surprise, especially to people who do not know an individual.

So the focus this week is not about death but on drugs.

From all the noise made by governments you would think that the war on drugs was waged on illegal ones because they cause all the trouble. The reality is quite different. In Australia there are more deaths from legal opiates such as oxycodone than from heroin.

According to a report in the New York Times in 2008 more people died of poisoning than on the roads. Indeed poisoning was the biggest cause of “traumatic” death and drugs caused 90% of these. Some 14,800 (40%) of 36,500 deaths were due to opiate analgesics and another 12,400 were due to other drugs. These figures came from an analysis done by the National Centre for Health Statistics.

The widespread use of oral opiates is fairly new and follows the launch in the late 1990s of oral oxycodone, which is marketed as Oxycontin. A Fortune Magazine report late last year showed 2010 sales of Oxycontin to be worth US$3.1 billion. When launched the drug was promoted as being addiction free. It is not. In 2007 the manufacturer pleaded guilty to a federal charge of misbranding the drug “with intent to defraud and mislead the public”. It was fined US$635 million!

Another drug, which is linked to many deaths, is Alprazolam, which is used for anxiety. Figures from Florida show a threefold increase in the number of deaths form this drug between 2003 and 2009. Some clinics in the USA now refuse to prescribe this drug.

There are also major issues with abuse of Ritalin, Dexamphetamine and other drugs used for ADHD. These have become popular with teenagers wanting to get into university who feel it makes them think clearer. By convincing doctors about non-existent symptoms they get a diagnosis and prescription. The black market in stimulant drugs is considerable.

Further problems arise as these drugs can increase paranoid thoughts. Add the influence of alcohol and we see why there is an increase in violence at pubs and nightclubs. Paranoia makes people interpret things like (a word, or a glance) in a way that feels threatening and hence they lash out.

And of course there are people who make up a cocktail of prescription drugs!

I will let you in on a trade secret. Getting hold of prescriptions is not that hard. The ability to come up with plausible symptoms and fool doctors (who necessarily start from the premise that people are being truthful and who are NOT trained detectives) is honed to a fine art by drug seeking individuals.

So what is being done? The Obama administration last year released a national anti-abuse plan for prescription drugs. In Australia the previous federal health minister was totally disinterested in the problem.

This is not an easy problem but ignoring it won’t make it go away. The Australian Government has the ability to track prescriptions. It pays for most of them! To require people to register at one chemist would be a simple move and has been recommended, but has fallen on deaf ears.

The New York Times featured a number of views on how to solve the problem on its “Room for Debate” page. The promotion of these drugs needs to be stopped and prescribing needs to be severely curtailed. Governments need to use existing powers to track down abusers who then need some assistance to get off these drugs. Jail is not the answer.

Collectively we need to stop seeing a pill as the solution to everything. It is this culture that is the proverbial elephant in the room.

The problems caused by legal prescription drugs dwarves that caused by illegal drugs. It is time we took the problem seriously.