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It's the Drugs, Stupid!

Exclusive commentary by Greg Lewis / WashingtonDispatch.com
February 8, 2003

Ripper is dead. He died of an overdose of prescription psychotropic drugs which he was pounding (taking in excessive quantities) during an on-line chat/videocam session with a number of internet acquaintances. "Ripper" was Brandon Vedas, a 21-year-old live-at-home part-time computer programmer. He had accessed a chat room specifically for drug users, and he was alternately egged on and warned to stop by those who watched as he kept swallowing pills.

The record of his "performance" strongly suggests that he meant to impress his cohorts with his ability to ingest large quantities of "legal" drugs and still remain sentient. He succeeded in the first endeavor, but he failed in the second. His mother found him dead the next afternoon of an overdose of four prescription drugs, in addition to alcohol and marijuana, about nine hours after his videocam shut down.

The four prescription drugs he took were:

Klonopin (generic name, clonazepam, one of a class of drugs called benzodiazepines, which are highly addictive and the withdrawal from which can result in physically and emotionally intolerable symptoms as well as seizures and loss of life);

Methadone (synthetic heroin which is used as a substitute for the street drug in so-called rehabilitation of heroin addicts and which acts on the brain in the same way heroin and morphine do);

Restoril (temazepam, another benzodiazepine);

Inderal (propranolol hydrochloride, a "beta blocker" which causes blood vessels to relax and is often used in the treatment of migraine headaches).

Now the side effects — which can include asthma, congestive heart failure, depression, insomnia, hallucinations, emotional instability, memory loss, nausea and vomiting, and diarrhea, to name a few — of any one of these drugs should be enough to scare people out of even thinking about taking them. And as horrifying as that list is, when the drugs are taken in combination with each other, their "side effects" can be compounded, and can include disability and death.

The risks don't change the fact that the drugs are all legal. You can get them with a doctor's prescription, and a doctor's prescription is not hard to obtain. In fact, the denizens of the chat room frequented by Vedas before his death traded tips on how to fake symptoms in order to get physicians to prescribe these drugs.

Now because this story is both ugly and lurid, I feel almost like a voyeur even discussing it. But its reportage is important, because it's a symptom of an already large and growing problem in our country: the abuse of prescription psychotropic drugs for "recreational" purposes. In New York City, emergency room visits by people who had overdosed on "legal" drugs was up nearly 50 percent in 2001, while nationwide the number of emergency room treatments of people who had abused prescription painkillers and narcotics was greater than those for heroin.

The fact is that such illicit use of prescription psychotropic drugs is not confined to chat rooms; it goes on in our schools every day. Doctors, counselors, and school administrators conspire to give to elementary and high school students hundreds of thousands of doses of these drugs every day. And, as many students will tell you in confidence, it's no problem to fake taking the drugs and later to sell them to fellow students who use them to "get high." One such student commented that the people to whom he sold the Ritalin he was supposed to take because he was diagnosed with ADHD "ground it up and snorted it, just like cocaine." He didn't realize how close he was to the truth, because Ritalin, called "the cognac of speed" by stimulant abusers, acts on brain cells in exactly the same way cocaine does.

One of the advantages of abusing prescription drugs is that you don't have to own up to any wrongdoing if you're "caught." No rehab. No AA meetings. No psychological counseling. You don't have to worry about singlehandedly skewing your company's health insurance rates because they had to shell out tens of thousands of dollars for medical treatments that not only didn't get you off of cocaine but introduced you to the wonderful world of Ritalin, Adderall, Paxil, and Prozac, which are not only just as good as street drugs . . . hell, they're free. Just about anyone can get a prescription for "the cognac of speed" and his or her health insurance company will pick up the tab.

A recent TNR-online article by Michael Fumento entitled "Trick Question" unfortunately tries to politicize the case against prescribing psychotropic drugs for children and adolescents by making it a "conservative" issue. While it's true that conservatives generally come out against prescribing these drugs for kids, the reason is more likely that they have better sense than liberals and that they're not as committed as liberals to supporting a centralized health care system one of whose functions is as a "pusher" of such drugs.

Fumento misunderstands and misrepresents the biochemical issues involved, pooh-poohing the idea that Ritalin is kiddie cocaine as well as the notion that Ritalin is overprescribed in America. In fact, Ritalin isn't "kiddie cocaine," it's just plain cocaine, and many adults are addicted to it for that reason. Ritalin is classed along with heroin and cocaine as one of the most addictive substances known, and more than 90 percent of all the Ritalin prescribed in the world is dispensed right here in the U.S.A. Fumento's ignorance (or, worse, suppression) of such facts as these makes his article nothing more than a dangerous attempt to politicize an issue — the physical and psychological health and well-being of our children — that should be beyond politics. Fumento needs to do a great deal more homework as well as rethink his politicization of this issue before he attempts to make further pronouncements.

The ease with which "legal" psychotropic drugs can be procured in this country has made them ripe for abuse. One of the ways to stop both the over-prescription of the drugs and their potential for abuse is to work to change our medical and educational cultures so that they attempt to treat causes of disorders rather than simply mask their symptoms. This, combined with stopping the prescription of powerful and potentially addictive psychotropic drugs for young people, would go a long way toward eliminating the abuse of prescription drugs.

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