The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) recently released its strategy on addressing the prescription drug abuse menace, and its findings deserve our attention.
Of those over the age of twelve who use drugs non-medically for the first time, one-third of them begin with prescription drugs. These are the second-most abused narcotic after marijuana. In 2009, 275 million prescriptions for opioids, painkilling medication, were dispensed – a nearly fifty percent increase in ten years. Opioid overdosing, once almost always attributed to heroin use, is now increasingly due to prescription drug abuse.
These statistics, along with anecdotal stories about abusers crushing and snorting pills out in the open on Main Streets and even in front of police stations, are deeply disturbing and alarming. They demand our attention and a comprehensive plan involving parents and communities, patients and health care providers. Getting the balance right, between curbing illicit drug use while ensuring pain treatment for legitimate users like the terminally ill, is essential.
It’s difficult to know where to begin, but the ONDCP plan provides a good start. It includes action in four major areas: education, tracking and monitoring, proper disposal, and enforcement.
Education: We must convince young people that using prescription drugs non-medically is life-threatening. Just because they come from a health professional, they can be just as dangerous as illegal drugs like heroin. Parents also need to know where the drugs are coming from – their own medicine cabinets. Seventy percent of people who abuse prescription drugs get their supplies, not from drug dealers or the Internet, but from their friends and relatives.
Tracking and Monitoring: State-based monitoring programs can prevent would-be addicts from visiting one doctor after another and one pharmacy after another, loading up on painkillers. I have helped to pass legislation in the Congress to assist in establishing these monitoring programs and making resources available to improve inter-state operability and communications.
Proper Disposal: This is something every West Virginian can do to lend a hand in fighting prescription drug abuse. Because they are legal and easily accessible, prescription drugs lend themselves to abuse if they are not properly disposed of. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, in cooperation with West Virginia law enforcement, has put together successful “Drug Take Back Days” to provide the public with no-questions-asked opportunities to turn in expired or unused medications that can be safely removed from communities and destroyed. I have helped to secure funding to organize and promote these events and I encourage West Virginians to participate.
Enforcement: The Congress should act now to provide law enforcement officials the authority they need to shut down the pill mills – the doctors, clinics, and pharmacies that are prescribing or dispersing powerful narcotics for non-medical uses. There should be zero tolerance for the unscrupulous practitioners who are poisoning are communities. I have cosponsored legislation in the House to toughen penalties and to allow for assets seized from pill mill operators to fund prescription drug databases and drug treatment programs.
I recognize that the biggest impediment to addressing prescription drug abuse can be resources, which is why I have called upon the ONDCP Director, the nation’s “Drug Czar,” to support the petition from the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) and the West Virginia State Police and local law enforcement to include Mercer County in the Appalachia HIDTA. With such a designation, southern West Virginia would have increased access to federal resources and information sharing between federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel in reducing illicit drug trafficking within the area.
Prescription drug abuse is a growing menace that southern West Virginia must marshal its resources in confronting. I am convinced that law enforcement, when combined with more public education, stronger prescription drug monitoring programs, and widespread drug disposal programs, can help us to get a handle on the epidemic.
U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) represents West Virginia’s 3rd District
For more information contact: Diane Luensmann (202) 225-3452