Why it's so hard to win the war against US oxycodone epidemic
Oxycodone dispensers are protected. Abusers are hard to ID. And the drug claims more lives than cocaine, heroin, meth.
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"All it takes is 1/10th of the physician population [to act unethically] to create a national epidemic," says Stanford University researcher Keith Humphreys, a former adviser to the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy.Skip to next paragraph
The overnight appearance of a pill mill in Cherokee County last year is what drew Price into the fight against the epidemic. Neighbors complained about parking lots jammed with out-of-state cars and vans. The clinic advertised on billboards and in newspapers across north Georgia, drawing the notice of police.
Price says local officials managed to "force" the clinic to move elsewhere, but no arrests were made. Subsequently, the county placed a moratorium on new "pain clinics," and towns like Woodstock are crafting tough regulations that require owners to be licensed physicians. Four remaining pain clinics in the county "are being watched carefully," says Price.
The fact that town councils are using zoning codes to thwart a drug epidemic indicates how widespread prescription opioid abuse has become – as well as how hard it is to check, says Dr. Humphreys.
But it's also a sign of the difficult debate among regulators, police, and the medical establishment as they try to squash the epidemic. "The problem we face is that policy is always a cudgel, never a rapier," he says. "In trying to solve the abuse problem, do we leave someone in a nursing home crying in pain?"
For addicts, the effects of pharmaceutical opioids can be pernicious and life-altering. One user, profiled in the 2009 television documentary "The Oxycontin Express," continued to seek out pills even after his wife and his brother died of pharmaceutical pill addictions.
More people now die of oxy abuse than of heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine abuse combined. There were some 11,000 oxy-related overdose deaths in 2007 (the latest national figure available), a tripling since 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta. "The number today is much worse," says Humphreys. Emergency-room visits stemming from prescription-drug overdoses doubled from 2004 to 2009, when they topped 1.2 million, report federal health officials.
This year, hospitals in the United States are reporting a surge in withdrawal symptoms in newborns. In April, oxy abuse claimed the life of the New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard, who was enrolled in the National Hockey League's drug treatment program. "Batman" actor Heath Ledger died in 2008 of a drug overdose that included painkillers.