Forty-two years ago this summer, President Richard Nixon declared that drug abuse had “assumed the dimension of a national emergency” and characterized it as “public enemy number one.”
In those days, narcotics like cocaine and heroin were in the gunsights of law enforcement officials and drug treatment counselors.
Today, however, it’s an entirely different game, with an epidemic of prescription drug abuse eclipsing the toll of deaths and wrecked lives wrought by illegal drugs.
The full extent of this crisis came into focus last week with a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reported that overdose deaths among women had increased by 400 percent in the last decade, driven by the abuse of prescription painkillers.
Though men still are more likely to overdose than women, the genders are coming close to parity on this unfortunate tally, and women are now more likely to perish due to an overdose than from a motor vehicle crash.
According to the CDC, 42 women die every day in the United States from an overdose of prescription painkillers, and a woman visits an emergency room to deal with a problem related to the abuse or misuse of prescription drugs at the rate of about one every three minutes.
“Mothers, wives, sisters and daughters are dying at rates that we have never seen before,” Thomas Frieden, the director of the CDC, told the Associated Press last week.
Washington and Greene counties haven’t been immune from this trend.
Far from it. There were 40 overdose deaths in Washington County last year, and 46 the year before.
In 1992, just two people died of overdoses in Washington County and 28 died that way in 2003. Gene Vittone, the county’s district attorney, has made prescription drug abuse a first-rank issue for his office.
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives was considering a bill in the just-completed session that would have established a database so doctors can easily determine if a patient has already received a sufficient amount of painkillers from other sources, particularly from physicians and pharmacies from neighboring states.
However, that was just one of several items left unfinished as lawmakers departed Harrisburg June 30.
Programs like these have been established in other states and, from all indications, have had beneficial results.
In fact, one of the CDC recommendations in its report is that “checking state prescription drug monitoring programs before long-term prescribing of controlled substances should be a standard of care.”
The CDC also recommends physician screening of patients for psychological disorders before prescribing painkillers, increasing access to substance abuse treatment programs and making sure that guidelines are followed when prescribing medication to those enrolled in Medicaid-funded programs.
The organization also advises that users refrain from sharing or selling their prescription drugs.
Even as painkillers provide much-needed relief for individuals suffering from debilitating injuries or chronic pain related to disease, their overuse and abuse has irretrievably damaged or ended many lives.
Rather than the dealer milling around on a street corner, the new “public enemy number one,” to use Nixon’s formulation, is a desperate individual bearing a prescription slip.