When An Rx Kills Instead of Heals

Illustration by Joanna Meza / el Don

By Cheantay Jensen

Fatal overdoses from controlled prescription drugs overtook car accidents as the leading cause of death in the U.S, a 2014 report from the Drug Enforcement Agency found

The most common types of abused controlled prescription drugs are painkillers, which are both highly addictive and expensive on the black market. Illicit use is a huge problem, said Cpl. Anthony Bertagna of the Santa Ana Police Department.

Methlynedioxy-methamphetamine, the core ingredient in the party drug ecstasy, is currently undergoing the Food and Drug Administration’s review process. If approved, it may become a prescription drug by 2021.

Ecstasy sold in the United States is often not pure MDMA, but a mixture of dangerous chemicals like methamphetamines and caffeine made in clandestine labs in Canada, according to the DEA.

The pure form of the drug is not dangerous unless abused because it does not contain the adulterants, and may actually have beneficial effects in treating sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

In the first clinical trial of MDMA as PTSD treatment combined with psychotherapy sessions, 83 percent of those treated with the drug showed improvement, versus those given a placebo who were found to have only a 25 percent symptom improvement, according to Dr. Michael C. Mithoefer, who led the 2010 study.

In psychotherapy sessions, therapists utilize MDMA because of its ability to lower fear and anxiety, while simultaneously increasing patients’ trust and empathy, explains Rick Doblin, founder of MAPS.

MDMA releases both dopamine and serotonin — the neurotransmitter responsible for happiness or pleasure — to the brain.

“I feel so happy and carefree, as if all is right with the world,” Amanda Smith, a student at Santiago Canyon College said when asked about her experience with ecstasy.

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MDMA is a commonly abused drug because of its recreational popularity at raves, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

party drug / Ecstasy tablets are being made to look like children’s vitamins. / Kansas City PD / TNS

Abuse of prescription drugs is increasing, and adults aged 18 to 25 are leading the way with controlled prescription drugs, excluding marijuana, as the most popular first-time-user drug of choice, according to a 2014 survey, conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“There are legitimate uses for medical marijuana, [but] personally based on my 35 years in law enforcement, there are not that many people who have medical issues [so] people take advantage of it,” Bertagna said.

When a drug becomes an FDA-approved prescription drug, the quality of it largely improves because it is regulated.

“I don’t even really think twice about taking them,” Virginia Hickman, a 19-year-old student at Irvine Valley College, said when asked about her use of prescription drugs. She has been using controlled prescription drugs since her diagnosis as bipolar at 15.

“I went with a close friend of mine on vacation, and she complained to me that she was having trouble sleeping at night,” recalls Virginia. “I gave her two of my prescribed sleeping pills that I use on a daily basis.

She took them without asking questions, and needless to say, she slept like a rock.”

Doblin argues that while it is concerning that MDMA abuse may grow once it is approved, the drug would only be administered in supervised sessions because even one can have a profound positive effect.

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