Recently we have had several clients present for psychotherapy treatment who are court stipulated to a drug program because of drug charges. Of course this is no surprise. But what is surprising is the level of charges and the clients we are seeing. For example, one of our clients could be confused with just about any other hockey mom (perhaps a recent exception). She is white, upper middle class, college educated, and working in a professional position. And although she has drug trafficking charges, which are a felony, the drugs she had in her possession were for private use and were prescription (of course she didn’t have a prescription). What is even more surprising is that she didn’t even have a month’s supply of the pain killer for someone for whom they might have been prescribed. The purpose of this article is to shed light on some of the risks currently being taken by those abusing prescription drugs.

Prescription drug abuse is the number one cause of drug related death in Florida. According to a New York Times article dated June 14, 2008, the “Medical Examiners Commission found that the rate of deaths caused by prescription drugs was three times the rate of deaths caused by all illicit drugs combined.” (Cave, D.). Yet this is often not enough to dissuade new users from trying, and becoming physically dependent on, prescription pain medications. Even high profile deaths including Heath Ledger and Anna Nicole Smith have little impact on those abusing the substance. This is largely a result of substance abusers believing they are invulnerable and the false belief they have a sense of control over their ingestion of substances.

Many who use or abuse opiate based pain medications aren’t even aware of its dependence potential. Most pain medications are made from opium or a synthetic opiate, which is the same main ingredient in heroin. Although tolerance (the need for more of the substance to get the desired effect) and withdrawal (physical and psychological symptoms resulting from the absence of the substance) take longer to develop in prescription medications, physical dependence can and often does develop. But the purpose of this article is to discuss drug law.

It is probably best to start with the lowest of crimes, simple possession of a substance. In this state the first offense is up to one year incarceration and a fine of up to $1000.00. A second offense is incarceration for not less than 15 days and no more than 2 years, and a minimum fine of $2500.00. A third offense results in at least 90 days in jail and no more than three years, and a minimum fine of $5000.00. The penalties for cocaine base are much harsher, and penalties can differ depending on the type of drug.

What is often misunderstood is the difference between possession and trafficking. It would seem to the average reader that trafficking involves moving large quantities of a substance, or at least selling it to another individual. This is not the case. Trafficking charges are usually based on weight. The weight for trafficking prescription medication is 28 grams. Now when this is applied to cocaine, it seems fair enough. 28 grams of cocaine is a lot, and it might be reasonable to say this person is selling the drug. But 28 grams of a pain medication such as Percocet can be as little as 6 or 7 pills. And much of the weight of Percocet pills come from Tylenol. But when an individual is caught with prescription medication that is not theirs, the intent is irrelevant to charges.

Trafficking charges, even for a first offense, can carry a penalty of up to 25 years in prison. Even when the sentence is lighter (probation, house arrest, treatment) the offender is labeled a felon for the rest of their lives. This affects their rights, ability to get and maintain employment, and to live a productive life.

In a social psychology class this author teaches on the psychology of drug abuse, unfair drug laws are often discussed. This is often in the disproportionate penalties facing minorities. This is best illustrated by the sentencing of crack, versus regular cocaine. Simply put, crack penalties for one gram equate to 100 grams of powder cocaine. It is also a the fact that 50% of our prison population is for non-violent drug offenses. It seems some of the sentencing laws are unfair.
I am not trying to excuse illicit and self destructive behavior. But to even consider sentencing someone addicted to pain medication or other prescription drugs to prison and otherwise seriously damaging their life seems harsh. If any reader is interested in being active in reducing these mandatory sentencing guidelines, they can contact FAMM, which works to change some of the unfair drug laws.

The purpose of this article is to educate readers who may have a family member abusing prescription substances to some of the risks. These risks include possible physical dependence, overdose and death risk, and, what is often overlooked and is the main point of this article, incarceration and felony conviction for even relatively small amounts of a medication without a prescription.

Wm. Berry MS, CAP.

Author's Bio: 

William Berry has worked in the field of addiction for over 15 years. He has been a Certified Addiction Professional since 1996. He has worked in nearly every form of addiction treatment available, including detoxification, residential, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient, and traditional outpatient. He has worked with all types of clientele, from the inner city in Philadelphia, to the high functioning substance abusers of the South Florida area. Mr. Berry has over 12 years experience conducting group and individual therapy. Mr. Berry is well read in the areas of addiction recovery, psychology, and Eastern philosophy. He obtained a Masters Degree in Counseling Psychology from FIU. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Florida International University, conducting a social psychology course entitled "The Psychology of Drugs and Drug abuse," and at Nova Southeastern University, conducting courses in Substance Abuse and the Family, and Interpersonal Communication. Recently William has developed seminars for reducing the risk of teenage substance related problems and for anger management. He has also developed a workbook for the outpatient program for which is director. The workbook is being revised for mass publication. William continues to be creative in his career to keep the passion for what he does alive.