In the USA prescription drug dependency has long been recognised as a matter for concern, however in the UK the authorities have been slower to recognise the problem. Drug dependency is not the same as drug abuse.In the case of drug abuse, the individual chooses to use a prescription drug to achieve a legal high, but drug dependency is involuntary and occurs as a result of the individual receiving prescription drugs, such as painkillers, to treat legitimate medical conditions.

A patient may be prescribed potentially addictive drugs for long-term disorders, such as anxiety, depression or pain relief. Generally, if used correctly, the drugs alleviate the symptoms without causing a problem, but in some cases patients do develop a drug addiction to the medication. Normally this is not discovered until the individual tries to stop using the drug, at which point he or she can suffer quite severe withdrawal symptoms, ranging from nausea and vomiting to cold sweats and anxiety.

The chance of becoming addicted is greatly increased by taking the medication too frequently or if the dose is increased without medical supervision. Over-prescribing drugs by doctors can also lead to an increase in prescription drug dependency. In 1988, the UK’s Committee for Safety of Medicines issue guidance to doctors, which stated that benzodiazepines should not be prescribed for more than two to four weeks, due to a high risk of prescription drug addiction. Researchers at the Universities of Geneva and Zurich have shown that drugs such as Valium and Xanx use the same pathways in the brain as illegal drugs, like heroin.

The USA, recognising that it had a growing problem with this form of drug abuse, opened its first treatment centres as long ago as 1998. Initially they admitted a relatively modest 19,870 patients, but by 2008 that figure had risen dramatically, to 111,251.

The UK is behind the United States in recognising this problem and the head of the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency recently warned that the NHS was prescribing too many drugs to the detriment of public health and the budget. However, authorities remain in the dark as to exactly how many addicts there are in the UK. Beat the Benzos campaign believes that there are between one and 1.5 million iatrogenic benzo addicts in the country, whilst a 2001 BBC Panorama programme suggested a figure of 1.5 million for patients addicted to tranquillisers alone.

Prescription drugs, such as Valium, Librium, Mogadon, Rohypnol, Dalmane and Xanax can all be highly addictive. Despite this there is little official help for prescription drug dependency. Most of the help that is currently available comes from charities, though some MPs are now pushing for more assistance to be offered by the NHS and for more appropriate prescribing of drugs. Dr. David Baldwin of the Royal College of Psychiatrists admitted that GPs needed to realise that benzodiazepines are not the most appropriate treatment for sleep and anxiety problems in many cases.