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Prescription drug addiction: an equal-opportunity disease

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MISSOULA, Mont. - This story starts with a recovering drug addict, who we'll call "Greg," to protect his identity.

"There is a big problem. It's a huge problem. It's getting worse. The younger people don't understand the consequences of what they're doing," said Greg.

Greg's an open book as he talks to NBC Montana, speaking about his former life as a logger and his current life as a recovering opiate addict.

"I got injured in 1990. That was when I was first prescribed pain pills, and one thing led to another," said Greg. Flash forward more than 20 years, and Greg is still an addict, and speaking with NBC Montana at Community Medical Services, a Missoula methadone clinic.

"It gets you off the street where you're not buying adulterated heroin or pills that have been obtained illegally," said Greg.

At a methadone clinic, the idea is simple. Methadone is an opiate, and it's given to addicts by trained workers in a controlled environment. It gets an addict off illegal opiates while avoiding major withdrawals. Some addicts choose to stay on methadone the rest of their lives. It's a controversial treatment, as critics say it gives addict a crutch and gets them addicted to something new, but Greg calls it a life-saver.

"I'm not making drug deals. I'm not hustling doctors. I'm not out looking for heroin, because when you go through withdrawal, you don't care what it is as long as it stops your withdrawal," said Greg.

For many addicts, getting off drugs is just the first step in months of treatment. Now, addicts can find help at the brand new Recovery Center Missoula. The doors opened in mid-April, and staff gave NBC Montana and Missoulian reporter Keila Szpaller a tour.

Executive director Tammera Nauts tells NBC Montana that people used to have to travel further away from their hometowns to seek treatment. Now the new treatment center offers sixteen beds that are filling up quickly and roughly 20 local jobs for employees.

"Drug addiction is an equal opportunity disease and it affects everyone," said Nauts. "Shaking loose of an addiction to prescription medication is very, very hard. [It's] probably one of the hardest things people will ever face in their lives."

Experts say prescription drugs target the brain's reward system by flooding it with dopamine. That's the neurotransmitter in charge of please. All those feelings of pleasure keep an addict taking drugs, again and again. An addict's brain produces less dopamine on its own. The addict needs more just to feel normal. That means more pills, in what becomes a vicious cycle.

"I don't know if there is a cure. I mean, for a person, myself, I think I'll always be an addict. It's a hard thing to face," said Greg.

Greg knows there's a whole new generation of addicts. That's why Greg told his story.

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"It is scary to watch, because I know the consequences. You have to pay the cost personallyThere's an old saying. Once a junkie, always a junkie," said Greg.

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