PHOENIX -- Prescription drug abuse is the fastest growing segment of illegal drug use in the United States. In fact, more Americans abuse prescription drugs than the number of people who use cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin combined.
"We survey law enforcement agencies, and we ask them what their number one drug problem is in their area," said Douglas Coleman, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). "At this point, prescription drug abuse is rapidly increasing throughout the country as the number one drug problem."
The numbers are most startling among teenagers. A recent survey found one in five teens reported they have abused prescription drugs to get high. One in seven reported they did so in the past 12 months.
"Prescription drugs, depending on what they are, can be much more expensive than illicit drugs," Acting U.S. Attorney Ann Scheel said. "So teenagers - they will start using prescription drugs and then they can't afford them and so they will go into illicit drugs."
Coleman said the Obama administration's primary target is not the consumer, but the seller.
"For us, the possession of these drugs is not the issue," he said. "It's the transfer and the distribution of these drugs to other people and other sources that (the DEA) becomes involved."
He went on: "From a legal perspective, there is no difference than a heroin dealer and a doctor if they are violating the law and prescribing outside the course of normal medical practice. They're charged with the same crime as a street heroin dealer."
Last year, federal agents arrested Dr. Angelo Chirban, of Paradise Valley, and accused him of running what a nurse in his office called a "prescription mill." The federal government seized more than $3 million dollars in currency, coins, and assorted silver bullion bars, plus one '99 Bentley - all alleged to be proceeds from trafficking in pain medication.