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Originally published April 7, 2012 at 8:06 PM | Page modified April 7, 2012 at 9:13 PM

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Painkillers alter how addicts relate to themselves, others

Calling them painkillers is almost a misnomer. They don't actually relieve the pain so much as they affect the way the brain perceives pain, and their extended use can result in the distortion of the brain's pain/pleasure responses.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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GREAT FALLS, Mont. — Ben Levenson has never met Ryan Leaf, but as someone who works in the field of addiction, he can provide a perspective that can help explain how Leaf has acted.

"He's not a bad guy who needs to get good," said Levenson, the co-founder and CEO of Origins Recovery Centers. "He's a sick man who needs to get well."

Police allege they found Leaf in possession of 117 pills over the span of four days. The fact that he did not have a prescription for those pills makes it illegal, but it's hardly the only problem.

Leaf has admitted he had an addiction to prescription pills, and in his case it was painkillers known as opiates.

Police allege they found Leaf with 28 oxycodone pills on Friday, March 30,and 89 hydrocodone pills last Sunday.Oxycodone is the main ingredient in drugs like Percocet and Oxycontin while hydrocodone is the main ingredient in a drug like Vicodin.

Taken under a doctor's supervision at prescribed doses, these drugs can be used to safely treat pain. But addicts like Leaf are considered unable to safely use opiates.

Calling them painkillers is almost a misnomer. They don't actually relieve the pain so much as they affect the way the brain perceives pain, and their extended use can result in the distortion of the brain's pain/pleasure responses.

"It's not just about the drug itself, but it actually alters the way they relate to themselves," Levenson said. "The way they relate to their community and the way they relate to their higher power."

Combine that reality with the fact that most opiate addicts develop tolerance — requiring a higher dosage to get the same effect — and it is particularly dangerous. An opiate addict is not only responding to a physical craving for the drug, but acting with a skewed brain chemistry, which to Levenson explains Leaf's reckless behavior.

"At the foundation, he's not a house robber," Levenson said. "He's doing that in order to satisfy a craving that is beyond his mental control."

A doctor's prescription is required to make sure consumption and dosage are monitored, and the abuse of prescription medication is considered the country's fastest growing drug problem. Deaths from prescription opiates are now believed to outnumber than cocaine and heroin combined in this country.

A person is never healed from a drug addiction, but he or she can recover. "The brain chemistry that happens is only reversible over a sustained period of time," Levenson said.

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