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Study: OTC drugs, prescriptions send more to
ER than cocaine

The data, to be released today by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), show that 1.3 million people visited a hospital emergency room in 2004 for illnesses involving drug abuse. The administration collects data from 417 hospitals and 106 million total emergency room visits.

One in four or 495,732 drug-related emergency room visits involved pharmaceuticals: over-the-counter or prescription drugs. One in five 383,350 visits involved cocaine. Marijuana was involved in 215,665 emergency room visits.

"We need to see a real focus getting the message out that just because something is prescribed or over-the counter doesn't mean it's not harmful," says SAMHSA administrator Charles Curie. "We want to recognize that medications prescribed by a doctor and taken exactly how the doctor prescribes can work wonders. But if it's not prescribed for you, if it's not taken the way it's intended, it's a recipe for disaster."

Surveys nationwide have shown a surge in prescription-drug abuse. The number of addicts seeking treatment for abusing prescription opiates, while relatively small at 63,243 in 2004, was up 62% from three years earlier, according to data released last month by SAMHSA. About 2.4 million people abused painkillers for the first time in 2004, making it the drug category with the highest number of new users, according to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health.

"These drugs have become very, very popular with people who abuse substances," says Joseph Troncale, medical director for Caron Treatment Centers based in Wernersville, Pa. He says up to 30% of the patients at Caron's drug-rehabilitation centers are being treated for prescription-drug abuse.

The drugs are cheap and readily available on the street, Troncale says.

"OxyContin, Percocet all these medicines are just being handed out like candy. I think there's too much availability," Troncale says.

Most prescription drugs abused or sold on the street come from pharmacy robberies, pharmacist dealers or doctor dealers, says Mark Caverly, an investigator for the Drug Enforcement Administration.