Prescription drug abuse: The new face of addiction

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By Daniel Hamburg
Mason Times staff writer

“It can happen to anyone. I’ve seen it a lot,” Aaron Emerson said. Unsuspecting teens are becoming addicted to prescription pills, and moving on to more dangerous drugs.

It’s in our medicine cabinets and prescribed by doctors. Prescription drugs, such as opioids, are available for helping people overcome pain and other medical issues, yet sometimes lead people down an addictive road.

Aaron Emerson, a 22-year-old Mason resident, was a sophomore in high school when he began experimenting with drugs. He had a bright future with friends by his side, and a loving family surrounding him.

Feeling the need to fill a hole in his life, Emerson said he smoked marijuana, took prescription painkillers, and eventually became addicted to heroin.

A growing problem in the United States and in Michigan, numerous taskforces and coalitions have been created to curb the habit of prescription drug misuse and abuse.

Mason Police Chief John Stressman said a major prevention tool against prescription drug abuse is education.

“The issue that we face now is the common mindset that people seem to think that it’s OK. It’s not abusing drugs if it’s a prescribed medication,” Stressman said. “That’s not true. Parents may think it’s acceptable because it’s not an illicit narcotic. That’s not true.”

MI_Non-Medical_Opioid_Use_and_ Sales_TFAH_2013

Rates of Non-Medical Use of Prescription Drug Opioids and Sales

Amy Moore with the Ingham County Health Department is also involved in a drug-free coalition, hearing from treatment providers and seeing in data from surveys, that youth medication misuse is on the rise.

“Youth in all of our school districts used to almost never report (using) pills, and now we’re seeing between 5 and 10 percent of students saying that they’ve taken pills,” Moore said. “It could be Adderall during finals week, but it’s medicine that’s not prescribed to them, and they’re taking these pills.”

Moore said that 80 percent of the problem comes from our own medicine cabinets. People let their supplies pile up, and often don’t recognize the possibility of anybody taking their unused pills.

“One of the problems that we knew from survey data was that people didn’t know how to dispose of unwanted, maybe expired, unused medicine,” Moore said. “We knew that we had a stockpiling problem of medicine.”

Take-back programs in Ingham County not only remove unused drugs out of homes, but also help stop people from putting their lives in danger.

“We’re looking both at medication misuse, and then we’re also seeing deaths associated with medication misuse,” Moore said. “Taking sedatives or painkillers with alcohol depresses the respiration system and causes death. We’re seeing those trends, and those are unusual trends we haven’t seen in the past.”Drug Overdoses Per 100,000 in Michigan

The Take Back Meds program is a joint effort between local pharmacies, law enforcement, health departments, wastewater treatment plants and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to provide residents with proper household medicine disposal. The collection and incineration of unused pills is the most environmentally friendly way to prevent water pollution from landfill runoff and other negative environmental effects.

The Ingham County Health Department Bureau of Environmental Health is looking for chain pharmacies to participate as well.

“We’d rather that people manage their medicines so they didn’t have a lot of extras, but if we have this stockpile of medicines, we do want to get rid of them, and we want to get rid of them properly,” Moore said.

Though prescription drugs led him down a path of opioid and heroin addiction, Emerson is now a student at Lansing Community College, majoring in social work, has a 3-year-old daughter, and lives at home with his parents.

He also started a website and a blog to share his experiences, hoping to eventually turn it into a non-profit to help other people who may be struggling with addiction or the recovery process.

While many agencies help decrease access to prescription medicine for those who might abuse it, Emerson says it is important to change the face of addiction as well. People from good homes are becoming addicts, not just “some homeless guy living under a bridge,” he said.

The website, run by Aaron and his father, Wes Emerson, can be found at

To view a list of participating pharmacies and law enforcement agencies in the take back program, visit

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