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November 20, 2005 - Gainesville Sun (FL)

A Culture Of Drugs

By Kinloch C. Walpole

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

A trend has emerged in the last decade that indicates a radical change in the underlying dynamics of drug abuse. This change is the growing abuse of prescription drugs. It is an abuse whose reach extends into the grade schools in a way that parallels cigarettes.

The reality of cigarette addictions is 90 percent of adult tobacco users started their habit before their 18th birthday. Their habit normally started with easy access to tobacco in the home.

The survival and profitability of the tobacco industry is predicated on the addictive qualities of tobacco taking hold at an early age. The Truth Commission was established and designed to combat tobacco addictions among youth. The effective ads of the Truth Commission are credited with an initial 47 percent reduction in teenage smoking.

The Truth Commission is funded out of the tobacco settlement and not taxes. In a series of budget cuts, the Florida Legislature cut the Truth Commission's budget from $70 million to $37 million and then to $1 million for the last three years. These budget cuts shadowed an $8.2 billion national advertising blitz by the five largest cigarette manufacturing companies.

This emasculation dropped Florida to the 43rd state in the nation in terms of money spent to deter youths from smoking. Consequently, most of the early successes in reducing teenage smoking have been wiped out.

Now, in addition to tobacco, we have a prescription drug culture whose tentacles are becoming firmly rooted in our grade schools. The National Institute on Drug Abuse's Monitoring the Future survey of 12th-graders points out that 9.3 percent reported using Vicodin and 5 percent reported using OxyContin without a prescription.

Then there is Ritalin, often referred to as "Kiddy Cocaine." The illicit use of Ritalin as a recreational drug has doubled among high school seniors. For many teens, buying Ritalin is easier than buying cigarettes or beer.

Grade school students bring their Ritalin experience to college where they also use it for appetite suppression and for late-night studying.

As distressing as prescription drug abuse at the grade school level may be, it is only the tip of the iceberg. There are some 32 million men and women abusing prescription drugs and another 12 million abusing illegal drugs. This does not mean the use of illegal street drugs has diminished. It means the abuse of prescription drugs has greatly expanded.

A part of this expansion can be traced to the Internet. Last year, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University researched the availability of prescription drugs through the Internet. In a one week search, they identified 495 Web sites advertising prescription drug sales. They also found that 94 percent of these sites did not require a prescription. Available drugs included OxyContin, Percocet, Darvon, Vicodin, Dexedrine, Ritalin, Adderall, Valium and Xanax.

The illegal distribution of prescription drugs has always been a problem but its recent growth has exacerbated the situation. The reality is that we are invested in the manufacture, sale and distribution of these substances be it legal or illegal.

The pharmaceutical industry made $250 billion last year. In the end, we are the shareholders that share in the revenue of the illegal use of prescription drugs.

Another large part of the revenue goes to marketing and sales.

The marketing, sales and administration budget looms over the research and development budget by 2.5 times across the industry.

The essence of the marketing is that we are marketing ourselves. We benefit from this marketing campaign through television, magazines, sporting events and Web sites financed in part by drug money. These same venues also provide portals for the drug companies to influence our behaviors.

The desired behavior is for us to ask our doctor for specific drugs in relation to existing medical conditions, be they perceived or real. Studies by the FDA and the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that nearly 50 million of us responded to these ads by asking for particular medications.

Another beneficiary of prescription drug money is our elected officials. An investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found the pharmaceutical and health products lobbying operation is among the largest in the nation.

This group spent more than $800 million in lobbying and campaign donations at the federal and state levels in the past seven years.

No other industry has spent more money to manipulate public policy in that period. Bear in mind they are manipulating public policy with a clear expectation of future revenues and profits.

The images of "Easy Rider" and "Valley of the Dolls" have undergone a radical transformation since the declaration of the war on drugs 30 years ago. "Easy Rider" has morphed into the cartels of Colombia and Mexico and then morphed again into the boardrooms of our pharmaceutical companies as well as our state and federal legislatures. The "Valley of the Dolls" has been buried under mountains of prescription opiates.

We need to look closely at the role and consequences of drug abuse in our community. To date, there has been no informed or responsible discussion of this subject in a sleepy university town with a $12 million a year cocaine habit and 50,000 college students.

Kinloch C. Walpole is director of the Gateway Zen Center, a Gainesville-based program that works with prison inmates.

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