Hydrocodone, the key ingredient in Vicodin and other prescription medicines, is the second-most abused prescription drug in the nation (oxycodone, the key ingredient in OxyContin and Percocet, is number one). It has been linked to thousands of overdoses, including those of celebrities Heath Ledger and Brittany Murphy, and has been the cause of a flood of pharmacy robberies across the nation. As states crackdown on oxycodone sales, people who are addicted to painkillers are turning to hydrocodone. Earlier this summer a man gunned down four people in a New York pharmacy and walked out with 11,000 hydrocodone pills.
Despite the obvious addiction and overdose danger associated with hydrocodone, Vicodin is also very damaging to the liver. Still, federal regulators have been unable to decide that it’s time to tighten access to this drug. Since 1999, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Food and Drug Administration have been trying to decide whether to move hydrocodone from the Schedule III category to Schedule II. The delay has been a source of increasing frustration for lawmakers, drug treatment counselors and the families of those who abuse prescription drugs.
Hydrocodone is a prescription painkiller that is has a similar chemical makeup to oxycodone. Prescription drugs that combine oxycodone and other painkillers like aspirin or acetaminophen are under strict Schedule II controls. This includes drugs like Percocet and Percodan. Similar drugs that are based on hydrocodone, including Vicodin, Lortab and Norco, are under milder Schedule III controls. This classification dates back to the 1970s, before scientists completely understood the effect of narcotic painkillers on the human body.
Pharmacies are required to keep Schedule II drugs in a secure locked location and can only fill prescriptions for one bottle at a time. The sentence for Schedule II drug trafficking is up to 20 years in federal prison for a first offense. In contrast, Schedule III drugs can be refilled as many as six times without a visit to a doctor’s office. Prescriptions can be renewed by a doctor by fax or phone. The maximum criminal penalty for trafficking Schedule III is 10 years.
The DEA and FDA claim to be have been studying the issue for the past 12 years but refuse to release any related documents. After examining hundreds of pages of public documents, reporters for the Associated Press found that the issue seems to have been passed back and forth between the two federal agencies for years. It took each agency several weeks to response to AP inquiries about the status of their studies. In March, members of Congress attempted to correct the classification of hydrocodone by introducing a bill that would overrule the DEA and tighten controls on hydrocodone. Representative Mary Bono Mack, one of the sponsors of the new legislation, accused the FDA of not doing its job.
Emergency room visits related to hydrocodone abuse increased by more than 400% between 2000 and 2009, from 19,221 to 86,258. Florida has been among the states that are hardest-hit by hydrocodone abuse, with the drug playing a role in more than 2700 deaths between 2003 and 2007. Advocates for tighter controls over hydrocodone would like the DEA and FDA to act in order to save lives.
There is help for vicodin addiction, and someone who is becoming addicted should try and talk to a professional before something terrible happens.