This week the National Drug Control Policy branch of the White House announced a new national drug policy that targets the current epidemic of prescription drug abuse. It is the first time the federal government has announced a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the non-medical use of prescription painkillers. According to Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh, “Abuse of prescription drugs, especially opioids, represents an alarming public health crisis.”
Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske unveiled the new plan, which aims to reduce the non-medical use of powerful opioid painkillers like oxycodone by 15 percent over the next 5 years. Kerlikowske’s press release described the magnitude of the prescription drug problem as exceeding the black tar heroin and crack cocaine epidemics of the 1970s and 1980s.
The plan will focus on four main areas: education for physicians, prescription tracking, drug disposal and a crackdown on illegal clinics that dispense prescription drugs.
The new drug strategy includes these initiatives:
• An additional $200 million in government spending on drug abuse treatment and prevention programs in 2012.
• Mandatory training for 1 million physicians who are qualified to prescribe opioid painkillers.
• A media campaign about the dangers of prescription painkillers.
• The establishment of prescription-tracking databases in all 50 states (currently 35 states have a tracking system in place).
• DEA support in helping Americans dispose of expired or unused prescription drugs.
• Additional law enforcement training in states that are most affected by prescription drug abuse.
• Aggressive law enforcement efforts to crack down on doctor shopping and pill mills, two popular methods for obtaining prescription drugs.
Kerlikowske, who is director of the office of National Drug Control Policy, is especially interested in educating drug prescribers about the dangers of prescription drug abuse. According to a national survey of doctor residency programs, less than 60% of medical schools currently provide substance abuse training.
As part of the new prescription drug strategy, the Food and Drug Administration has created a new program that will require drug companies that manufacture extended-release prescription opioids to provide educational programs for both doctors and patients about the dangers of abusing these drugs.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted in 2009, found that more than 7 million Americans abuse prescription drugs and that over 70 percent of abusers obtain prescription drugs from friends and family members.
The DEA’s efforts in helping citizens dispose of prescription drugs aims at removing these addictive prescription drugs from home medicine cabinets when they are no longer needed.
Michele M. Leonhart from the DEA summarized the government’s stand on prescription drug abuse: “When abused, prescription drugs are just as dangerous and just as addictive as drugs like methamphetamine or heroin. The more we can do to stop the abuse of prescription drugs, the more effective we will be in reducing the death, destruction and despair that accompanies all drug abuse.”