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Commentary: New face of addiction in America

By Jane Velez-Mitchell
  • Jane Velez-Mitchell: A prescription written on a pad by a doctor does not equal safe
  • She says prescription drug overdoses kill more people than heroin and cocaine
  • There are about 20,000 drug-related deaths a year in the U.S, according to the CDC
  • September is National Drug and Alcohol Addiction Recovery month

Editor's note: Jane Velez-Mitchell hosts "Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell," a topical event-driven show with a wide range of viewpoints that airs every night on HLN at 7 p.m. ET. Velez-Mitchell takes readers on a journey to recovery in her new addiction memoir, "iWant," available now.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Addiction in America has a new face: prescription drugs. Last year, prescription drugs replaced heroin and cocaine as the leading cause of deadly overdoses.

And celebrities are showing us that mixing prescription pills -- the pills you may have in your home right now -- could be just as deadly as shooting up heroin or snorting cocaine.

Adam Goldstein, aka DJ AM, seems to be the latest well-known victim of a deadly dose of drugs.

The celebrity DJ was found dead in his New York apartment on August 28. A law enforcement source tells People magazine that Goldstein was found with eight undigested OxyContin pills in his stomach plus a ninth in his mouth. (The medical examiner's office told HLN it would not release any information on the case until further testing is completed.)

Sound familiar? Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, Anna Nicole Smith -- all victims of deadly prescription drug overdoses.

But this is not only happening to rich and famous "stars," it's also happening right now, as we speak, to average Joes and Janes in homes all across America.

According to statistics from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, there are some 20,000 drug-related deaths a year in the United States. Even more shocking than the deaths of all of our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and children is that drugs prescribed by a doctor -- not bought off the streets -- were the leading cause of fatal overdoses.

America, we need to wake up! A prescription written on a pad by a doctor does not equal safe. When prescribed responsibly, taken as directed and kept out of reach of children, painkillers, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds -- any pill -- can be a godsend to the people who need those drugs to live day-to-day. But all too often, those tablets intended for one particular patient get into the hands, the mouths, the bloodstreams of those just looking to get high.

In my new book, "iWant," I talk about my addiction to alcohol. Before I got sober, I would occasionally take a Valium with a glass of wine. Alcohol was my main vice. I wasn't a pill addict, but I did pop a few. Want to know how I got them? Well it wasn't from a doctor. I got them from friends. That's how it works.

In the book, I write about just how common that kind of prescription abuse was. We used to say that if someone at a stadium in Los Angeles asked if anyone had a valium, everyone in the stands could immediately produce one.

So how do we even start to cure this epidemic? First and foremost we need to stop expecting to get a pill for every ache and pain we complain to our doctors about. Addiction specialist Dr. Drew Pinsky pointed out recently on my show, "Issues," that, "The medicines we have today are miraculous. They are spectacularly effective. Thank goodness we have these substances. Only because there's a dark side to this, we have to become less dependent on them and seek them less."

What we're really jonesing for, what we're really addicted to, is the quick fix. Dr. Gail Saltz, a clinical psychiatrist, was on "Issues" a few weeks ago. She says many people, especially celebrities, "don't want to take the long road. They want the quick fix. They want the 'give me something so I can feel better in an hour.' And they're not willing to do the work."

Doctors know when to prescribe medicine to heal us. What we have to do is stop expecting a Percocet for a toothache or a Valium for a breakup. If a drug is the proper therapy for what is hurting us, then we should take it, and take it as directed, but remember you can also ask your doctor about nonpharmaceutical remedies. Oftentimes there are alternative therapies we can choose that may not be the easy way out, but are effective and drug free.

Doctors have some responsibility in all this, too. As we learned through the investigation into Michael Jackson's death, there are allegations of unscrupulous practices by some of his doctors and pharmacists. Yes, someone has to ask for the drugs, but it takes someone with access to these pharmaceuticals to get them into an addict's hands. Better tracking, better oversight and stricter controls over controlled substances are all desperately needed.

But no matter how self disciplined we are or how controlled medicines are, there will be those who become addicted. It's vital that we're able to reach out for help when we need it.

We had all looked to Goldstein as a great example of recovery. He said he'd been clean and sober for more than a decade. Sadly, according to the Los Angeles Times, just a day before his death, DJ AM met with his sponsor to admit he'd relapsed and wanted to go back to rehab.

As a recovering alcoholic, I know how strong the draw of drugs and alcohol can be and I know where to turn for help when the urges come. However, far too many of our families, our friends and neighbors do not. Effective and affordable treatment has to be available to all.

We've heard from so many viewers of "Issues" over the months who are struggling with addiction -- and even more who are living in recovery. Not one of those e-mails or Facebook comments came from someone famous.

It's heartbreaking that I can't reach out to each and every one of you, but through reporting on the struggles of the people whose names or faces we can all recognize, we hope that "Issues" is providing a light and a hope and a reason for you to stay clean, get healthy and think about your choices. Or reach out to someone who needs help.

September is National Drug and Alcohol Addiction Recovery Month. Isn't this a great time for America to say, "Hey, we have an epidemic on our hands and we need to do something about it?"

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jane Velez-Mitchell.