Drug war focuses on painkiller abuse
WASHINGTON - After years in which marijuana, cocaine and heroin were by far the main focus of the nation's war on drugs, the Bush administration is attacking the rising abuse of prescription drugs.
While marijuana remains the nation's most abused drug, according to government and private studies, narcotic pain relievers like OxyContin and Vicodin, along with a variety of some other prescription medications, have overtaken amphetamines to rank second.
A nationwide study by the University of Michigan showed that from the 2002-03 school year, nonmedical use of prescription drugs among students in the eighth, 10th and 12th grades increased even as use of other illicit drugs dropped by 11 percent.
And, like street drugs, prescription drug abuse produces headlines about celebrity drug users. Talk radio personality Rush Limbaugh admitted last year that he was addicted to painkillers.
Authorities in Palm Beach County, Fla., are investigating Limbaugh and several of his doctors on suspicion of "doctor shopping," the practice of contacting a number of physicians as a way of getting more drugs than are medically necessary -- a felony in Florida.
Part of the problem is that prescription drugs are advertised to millions of people every day over the Internet.
Many of those drugs are from foreign sources that state and federal authorities cannot easily trace, let alone regulate.
The House Government Reform Committee planned hearings this week on a bill that would require such Web sites to identify their place of business, as well as affiliated doctors and pharmacists, and would ban any sales made without an in-person consultation with a doctor and a valid prescription.
Beyond congressional interest, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has for the first time instructed federal agencies with anti-drug programs to develop new strategies to combat prescription drugs' abuse and illegal marketing.
"We don't want to wait until we get what we had with the crack epidemic," said John P. Walters, who as the office's director serves as the nation's "drug czar."
As a measure of the administration's concern about prescription drugs, President Bush is seeking $12.6 billion for anti-drug programs next year.
That would be a 4.6 percent increase, a request nine times as high as the average increase proposed for programs that do not involve defense or national security.
Much of the responsibility for the new focus on prescription drugs falls on the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Walters said the FDA was being instructed to improve labeling of commonly abused drugs and to provide doctors more information about the medicines they prescribe. The DEA has been asked to shut down online pharmacies selling drugs without prescriptions and to discourage credit card companies from facilitating sales.
Since arriving on the market in 1996, OxyContin has become one of the most commonly prescribed narcotics for treating pain, notable for a time-release delivery and an active ingredient that is twice as potent as morphine.
Abusers crush the tablets to gain its full impact at once through snorting or injection. The effect is a euphoria that many drug experts say is equal to that produced by heroin.
Rural areas and other economically distressed regions have been hit especially hard by OxyContin and other painkillers.
Louise Howell, executive director of Kentucky River Community Care, a social services agency in the state's Appalachian region, said easy access to prescription drugs through doctor shopping and Internet sales had brought painful consequences.
Citing cases in which users were supporting their habits by selling their homes and stealing from their families, she said: "It's overwhelming us. We're imploding, and it's shameful."
Sgt. Bill Purcell of the Virginia state police reports the same problems in southwest Virginia, where he supervises a regional drug task force.
In the last five years, he said, there have been "dramatic increases" in illicit use of prescription drugs, a trend characterized by the theft of doctors' prescription pads, callers to pharmacies who pretend to be physicians, and nurses who call in prescriptions for themselves.
"These drugs are everywhere," Purcell said.
Michael Horn, director of the National Drug Intelligence Center, a Justice Department agency that provides analysis for policymakers and support for drug-fighting programs, said he planned to shift more resources into generating information on prescription drug abuse.
"The increasing rates we've seen," Horn said, "are kind of scary."
But even the proposed level of federal spending may not make much difference, state and local law enforcement officers say.
"Even the DEA people I talk to say they are hurting for resources," said Purcell. "Unless we get more resources, we'll always be behind the eight ball."