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New Painpill—Another Killer?

There’s nothing new about prescription pill abuse, except for the amount of people doing it and the increasing variety of pills available. The Rolling Stones song “Mother’s Little Helper” came out in 1966, riffing on the popularity of Librium and Valium among middle-class housewives. High-school kids in the 60s and 70s took barbiturates, which packed a punch on their own but generally guaranteed a blackout experience when combined with alcohol.

Now, nearly 50 years after the Stones song, there’s been a proliferation of new pharmaceutical products as companies compete for market share. Pills for anxiety, depression, sleep problems, dieting, and fatigue all have, besides the benefits of their intended use, potential for abuse. Ask any drug addict in recovery about the Physician’s Desk Reference, an annual compilation of all prescription drugs, and he or she will probably laughingly admit to having owned one.

Most problematic in the last few years, however has been the category of painkillers. Prescription pill abuse is rampant in this category. To make matters worse, manufacturers are still producing new and more potent products. The US Food and Drug Administration recently approved Zohydro, a formulation of hydrocodone that will contain up to ten times the amount found in a regular Vicodin. The time-release capsules are easily crushed up and snorted, which makes them a target for abuse.

To those in the trenches trying to stem the tide of opiate abuse, this is a frustrating development. With a variety of painkillers already being abused—Vicodin, Oxycontin, Percoset, etc.—experts in treatment and prevention point to studies that show that opioids are overprescribed and too easily acquired “on the street” as it is. Furthermore, prescription pain pill abuse often leads to heroin addiction, as cheap brown Mexican heroin is easily available in the US and it satisfies the craving set up by a pill habit.

According to government statistics, nearly five million people in the US abuse painkillers. Oddly—and with the FDA’s help—a tremendous amount more pain pills are produced than are needed for legitimate medical purposes. Law enforcement—from the DEA to local sheriffs and police—are then left to interdiction efforts. This obvious flaw in national policy should be examined and changed.

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