It seems that America is focusing on the wrong “war on drugs."
Prescription medications, most notably painkillers, have grown quite popular across the country. Due to the legality and availability of the drugs, they have become the new highs for many and a growing number of consumers are developing dependencies.
An Associated Press analysis shows the percent increase for drug sales per capita from 2000 to 2010 of the two most popular painkillers: oxycodone (the key ingredient of OxyContin, Percocet and Percodan) and hydrocodone (the key ingredient in Vicodin, Norco and Lortab).
Oxycodone use is highest in Florida (change in per capita sales at 565 percent), Tennessee (515 percent), the southwest from California (372 percent) through Kansas (315 percent), as well as New York (519 percent), Delaware (439 percent), and our home state New Jersey (354 percent).
Hydrocodone hasn’t taken as big of leap, but is still prominent in the Midwest with South Dakota (change in per capita sales 322 percent) and the southeast in Tennessee and South Carolina (both at 291 percent).
And that’s just averaging for the individual states; in some areas, the sales of the drugs went up sixteenfold, reports Chris Hawley for the Associated Press. The borough of Staten Island saw sales leap 1,200 percent. Even though the drugs are prescribed by doctors to their patients for medical needs, an estimated 2.4 million Americans took those drugs for non-medical reasons for the first time in 2010.
The increase is partly (perhaps mostly?) due to the aging U.S. population with pain issues and a greater willingness by doctors to treat the pain, said Gregory Bunt, a medical director at New York’s Daytop Village chain of drug treatment clinics.
In most cases, a patient would develop habitual or dependent lifestyles when taking the drugs for medical needs, but would find it extremely hard to kick the habit once that medical need ran out. With a pharmacy on every corner and treatment centers hard to find or overbooked, it’s easier to get a refill than to get treatment. Leftover pills often fall into the wrong hands.
"Prescription medications can provide enormous health and quality-of-life benefits to patients," Gil Kerlikowske, the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (referred to as the “U.S. Drug Czar”), told Congress in March. "However, we all now recognize that these drugs can be just as dangerous and deadly as illicit substances when misused or abused."
Record manufacturing and distribution of the drugs is apparent: in 2010, pharmacies received and dispensed enough of these pills to give 40 5-mg Percocets and 24 5-mg Vicodins to every person in the United States. The Drug Enforcement Agencies record shipments to pharmacies, hospitals, practitioners and teaching institutions, but does not keep tabs of how much individual patients receive.
Experts say that most of these prescriptions are not necessary, but that doesn’t stop the doctors who are licensed to prescribe the drugs. The United States makes up only 4.6 percent of the world's population, but consumes 80 percent of its opioids -- and 99 percent of the world's hydrocodone, reported Jim Avila and Michael Murray for ABC News a year ago.
"Vicodin is the most prescribed opioid mainly because it's been incorrectly scheduled as a class III rather than a II," says Andrew Kolodny, Chair of Psychiatry at Maimonides Medical Center in New York. "Many states have prescribing regulations linked to DEA scheduling. But it is no less abusable or addictive than Oxycodone or heroin."
These feel-good painkillers, which are often referred to as “legal heroin,” can interact with many other medications and kill more Americans than illegal hard drugs like crack or cocaine. Opioid pain relievers, the category which includes oxycodone and hydrocodone, caused 14,800 overdose deaths in 2008 alone. The death toll is only rising, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many abusers swallow the pills, but others crush and smoke, snort, or inject the power.
The rising problem is not going unnoticed; recently, four companies started experimenting with a new, pure form of hydrocodone, which pack up to 10 times the power of Vicodin. A co-sponsor of a Congressional bill argued that this kind of drug does not make sense: “Why is it necessary to go further in a pure form?” U.S. Rep. William Keating (D-MA) told The Enterprise. A former district attorney for Massachusetts’ Norfolk County, Keating is urging FDA to reject the new drugs: “To me, it wouldn’t be a close call if I were in that position.”
If only there existed a natural substance that provided similar remedial effects with practically no possibility of overdose....
Well, that's a whole different story.