Prescription drug abuse gets Congress’ attention

The drumbeat for more to be done to fight the nation’s prescription drug abuse epidemic is getting louder. That’s a good thing.

Morris Panner, a former counternarcotics prosecutor who is now an adviser at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, told The New York Times in an article published last week that “the policies the United States has had for the last 41 years have become irrelevant … The United States was worried about shipments of cocaine and heroin for years, but whether those policies worked or not doesn’t matter because they are now worried about Americans using prescription drugs.”

The prescription drug abuse epidemic is pushing the federal government to re-evaluate its “war on drugs.” Resources used to support anti-drug efforts in Mexico and the Americas are being shifted to domestic initiatives.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one person dies every 19 minutes from prescription drug abuse in the United States. There were 36,450 overdose deaths in the United States in 2008. Of those, 20,044 involved prescription drugs, more than all illicit drugs combined.

The rising tide is linked to an increase in opioids, popular painkillers best known by their brand names such as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin. For each death, nine people seek substance abuse treatment, 35 seek emergency room treatment and 161 report drug abuse or dependence.

“Nearly all prescription drugs involved in overdoses are originally prescribed by a physician rather than, for example, being stolen from pharmacies,” U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told the Senate Drug Caucus during a Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday “This tells us that we must target our efforts to control medications at doctors’ offices and by preventing the diversion of prescription drugs after they are dispensed.”

Feinstein pointed out that while 49 states have authorized electronic prescription monitoring systems, in many cases they are not yet operational or so poorly constructed and managed that they are underutilized.

Another big problem is the availability of prescription drugs through illegitimate pharmacy websites. Feinstein is sponsoring the Online Pharmacy Safety Act, which would require at least one in-person medical evaluation be conducted in most instances before prescriptions could be issued.

On Thursday, U.S. Reps. William Keating, D-Mass., and Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., introduced legislation requiring pharmaceutical companies to produce tamper-resistant drugs whenever possible. That means making commonly abused medications more difficult to repurpose for injection, inhalation or other means of consumption.

These are all good ideas. But as The Telegraph’s recent special series “Rx Addiction Epidemic” pointed out, the battle against prescription drug abuse has just begun. Much more needs to be done.

Most important for New Hampshire is that when the next Legislature convenes in January, it must include enough money in the next budget to ensure the prescription drug monitoring system voted into law this year becomes an effective reality.

Too many lives are at stake to do otherwise.