As Pennsylvania and other states debate the merits of loosening regulations on marijuana – a position for which we have some sympathy – it’s becoming more and more apparent that the primary drug abuse problem in this area and around the country is not the narcotics that have been the focus of the failed “war on drugs” but highly addictive prescription painkillers.
According to a report published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, drug overdose deaths have increased for the 11th consecutive year. In 2010, the last year for which data was available, there were 38,329 drug overdose deaths nationally, with 22,134 of those deaths the result of medication-related drugs like Valium, Vicodin and OxyContin – close to 60 percent of the total.
Thomas Frieden, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, told the Associated Press, “The big picture is that this is a big problem that has gotten much worse quickly.”
To put this in some perspective, there were just 4,000 deaths nationally from prescription painkillers in 1999.
At a gathering of county officials at the end of January to discuss prescription drug abuse, Yesh Navalgund, a Pittsburgh doctor, said that 80 percent of abusers of painkillers get their supply from their doctors. Unlike illegal drugs, they don’t have to poke around in the underground market or seek out a fix in a grungy neighborhood. Sometimes young people get hooked when they filch the pills from their parents’ medicine cabinet.
While some observers believe that the number of prescription drug fatalities will slow once the dangers of abuse become more widely known, it has been suggested that restrictions on the drugs be tightened, and that hospitals establish tougher guidelines on prescriptions and refills. Given the scale of the problem, these are recommendations that should be acted upon with urgency.