While recreational drug users think prescription medicines are safe, because GPs hand them out and the tablets are what they purport to be, benzodiazepines and opioid painkillers are highly addictive if taken regularly for any length of time.
Anna, who had a high-pressured job requiring her to make frequent long-haul flights, was not a recreational drug taker but started taking zopiclone to help her sleep on the plane or when she arrived in a different time zone and needed to be fresh for work in the morning.
"Your body gets accustomed to the drugs. I didn't really understand their addictive nature," she said. "They weren't having an effect so I was having to up the dosage." She ended up taking five tablets at a time, but they just made her more anxious, irritable and sleepless. "I lost a lot of friends."
She talked of the societal "pressure to perform" and her regret that there was so little help. G.P.s did not want to know, she said.
With the help of the Council for Information on Tranquillizers, Antidepressants and Painkilllers (CITA), a support group, she had been switched to a different drug and was slowly cutting down.
Against expectations, most people in the Guardian/Mixmag survey did not get their prescription drugs from the internet, but from their own G.P. or a friend who had been prescribed them.
General Practionsers (GPs) were in a bind, said Dr. Peter Swinyard, national chairman of the Family Doctor Association. When people arrived in the surgery complaining of pain or insomnia "we are predisposed to believe what people tell us", he said. "We always work from the premise that they are being honest with us."
Nonetheless, a survey the association did last summer showed that 52% of GPs were worried about prescription drug abuse in their area. Eight out of 10 of the 197 GPs who responded to the survey said they were aware of prescribing to people who they thought were addicted. Half were aware of occasions when prescriptions had been sold on.
"People tell us they lose their prescription or it got eaten by the dog. A lot of general practices have systems like a book at reception recording those who say they have lost their prescription," said Swinyard.
But there are people who G.P.s would not characterize as liars or cheats. "There is the traditional little old lady who is taking her sleeping pill prescription and selling it down the pub. I'm sure there is a cohort of elderly people supplementing their pension by selling their prescription drugs," he said.
Although the Guardian/Mixmag survey responders mostly said they used sleeping tablets for sleep and painkillers for pain, they had often tried them to get high – 57.8% in the case of the anti-hyperactivity drug Ritalin, nearly 40% in the case of the benzos and 28% who had taken opioid painkillers.
In the U.S., prescription opioids have caused a huge problem since oxycodone – better known by its brand name OxyContin – was licensed for use outside cancer treatment in the mid-1990s. In 2008, 15,000 Americans died from overdosing on prescription opiates, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which is more than on heroin and cocaine combined.
The opioid epidemic appears not to have hit the U.K.
"There has been a rise in oxycodone deaths, but it is pretty small," said James Bell, addiction consultant at the South London and Maudsley NHS trust. "I have been trying to look for evidence here and it is not a big problem."
Demand was fueled in the U.S. by direct advertising to the public. In the U.K. this is not allowed and most people are registered with a single NHS G.P. (general practitioner) so cannot shop around.
The Guardian/Mixmag study, which was conducted by Global Drug Survey, shows that a quarter of responders had taken prescription opioid painkillers and 9% had taken other painkillers. More than three-quarters said they took them for pain relief, 24% said they took them to get to sleep and 18% said they took them for mood-changing purposes.
Intellpuke: You can read this article by Guardian Health Editor Sarah Boseley in context here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/mar/15/recreational-drug-users-medicines-survey