mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Stepping Up The War On Drugs?

The stoner lobby would like us all to believe that Legalization Day is just around the corner and the momentum for an end to the war on drugs is irresistibly rising.

It ain’t, and this AP story (h/t NY Times) helps explain why.  The FDA has been slow to tighten controls over one of the most dangerous (and also one of the most helpful) pain drugs in the country, and pressure is rising to change that.

NEW YORK (AP) — It is the nation’s second-most abused medicine, linked to murders, celebrity overdoses and a rising tide of violent pharmacy robberies. But since 1999 federal regulators have put off deciding whether to tighten controls over hydrocodone, the addictive narcotic that is the key ingredient in Vicodin and other medicines.

The Drug Enforcement Administration and Food and Drug Administration insist they are still actively studying whether to move hydrocodone-containing medicines from the Schedule III category of medicines to the more restrictive Schedule II. But the 12-year delay is frustrating drug treatment counselors, lawmakers and relatives of overdose victims.

“They’re not doing a darn thing,” said Robert DuPont, president of the Institute for Behavior and Health, a Rockville, Md.-based think tank. “There’s no study that takes 12 years. When you think how many people have died of hydrocodone overdoses, it’s inexcusable.”

Nationally, emergency room visits related to non-medical hydrocodone use have quadrupled since 2000 — from 19,221 to 86,258 in 2009. In Florida alone, hydrocodone caused 910 deaths and contributed to 1,803 others between 2003 and 2007. Actors Heath Ledger, Brittany Murphy and Corey Haim all died from drug cocktails containing it.

A DEA review of police drug labs shows seizures of hydrocodone-containing pills number second only to those of oxycodone, the narcotic used in drugs like OxyContin and Percocet. Hydrocodone seizures have soared from 13,659 in 2001 to 44,815 in 2010.

In March, alarmed by the rising rates of abuse, 58 members of Congress filed a bill that would bypass the DEA and FDA’s rulemaking process and tighten controls on hydrocodone.

“The FDA is about controlling dangerous drugs, and they’re just not doing their job here,” said Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., one of the bill’s sponsors.

The US is nowhere near coming to terms with the consequences of cheap, addictive, mood enhancing and/or pain relieving drugs of growing power for both good and ill.  This is a messy, intractable problem and our policies around it — reflecting the conflicting beliefs and impulses of a divided public — are going to be inefficient, ineffective and ugly as far as the eye can see.

That’s a prediction, not a recommendation.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Andrew Allison

    Dr Mead, I am, for the very first time, disappointed in you. The drug to which you refer is a perfectly legal prescription medication. To conflate its abuse with the ridiculous, costly and completely ineffective “War on (recreational) Drugs” is disingenuous. The United States obviously learned nothing from Prohibition, which failed to prevent drinking while creating a vast criminal network, and history has repeated itself. It would be far more cost-effective in every way to legalize recreation drugs and divert the revenue from the gangs to government.
    Perhaps we might begin by comparing the social cost of, for example, marijuana, alcohol and tobacco. Even legalizing the harder drugs might have benefit — availability could, for example, might be combined with therapy.

  • Lexington Green

    “stoner lobby”

    Not fair. You do not have to be a stoner to see that criminalizing rather than medicalizing drug abuse is wasteful, expensive, destructive and erodes our liberties. Further, all currently illegal drugs are not alike and that policy changes can and should be adopted incrementally and cautiously.

    As a drug teetotaler, I have zero interest in partaking. But as a citizen I am disgusted by the sight of prisons filled with users and sellers of marijuana. Start with pot, change the approach, allow it to be legally sold, see what happens. If the sky falls, stop. If it turns out OK, begin cautiously winding up the war on drugs on other fronts. Milton Friedman was right about this 40 years ago. Lots of pointless suffering could have been avoided if the USA had paid attention.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @ Lexington Green In a past post i’ve said that I favor, narrowly, legalization of drugs. I just think it isn’t going to happen soon and will be complicated and difficult when and as it does.

  • John Burke

    I disagree. Tighter controls on Vicodin and Percocet will only serve to frustrate prescribing physicians and patients with a real need. They will do nothing to reduce pharmacy robberies or illicit trafficking.

    I recently had a double knee replacement, a difficult and exceedingly painful experience that required substantial doses of oainkillers during therapy long after the surgery. People who sufffer from excruciatingly painful arthritis or spine compressions have a legitimate need for responsible use of these medications. And millions use them responsibly. Such patients should not be forced into added exoensive doctor visits because some clowns are getting high on street pills.

    Meth cooking has suffered not in the least by the ludicrous registration of sales of cold pills.

  • Colryss

    The stats on heart disease and cancer are impressive. Medicine has made great strides in treating them, improving lives and longetity. Stem-cell research and what can be done with gene tinkering hold great promise for curing many diseases. But the true “last frontier” for medicine is chronic unrelievable pain, and it affects many more people than either heart disease or cancer. It is like depression used to be, or the common cold is still: it is so ubiquitous that people just shrug and try to soldier on. Things that might work can’t be prescribed because doing so poses a greater threat to the doctor than the patient’s pain does to the doctor. It’s a medical problem that the justice system has taken a lucrative and destructive interest in due largely to two factors IMO: the self-righteous moral strain in this country, and the fact actors in the justice system enjoy a good deal of funding, from both tax dollars and payoffs. Someone is profiting from it, but not the patients who really need relief.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Speaking as a member of the anti-crime wing of the stoner lobby, note that none of dead people mentioned in your article were murdered. Unlike the 9 found yesterday bound and shot in the head. Or any of the 15,000 who died in Mexico in 2010 so that our government could continue to control what supposedly free people ingest into their own minds and bodies.

  • Glen

    Opium and its derivatives (Vicodin and Percocet both contain synthetic opiates) have been humanity’s companions for thousands of years. They are powerful substances, with both the power to help heal and to worsen some affictions. One society’s attempts to prohibit them will not make them dissappear, nor will it serve any significant societal benefit. “Legalization” may not be the answer – but surely hysteria and misinformation are wrong, too.

    And to suggest that opiates have “caused” deaths invests yet another inanimate object (such as firearms) with supernatural power over life and death that they cannot possibly possess.

  • f1b0nacc1

    Several years ago, I had an attack of kidney stones, an experience I don’t encourage anyone else to try out. I was given hydrocodone for the pain, which it dealt with admirably. After 5 days, the stones passed, and I never took the stuff again. For the record, if I could find who invented it, I would happily build a monument to him….it worked, and sheilded me from a pain so terrible that I would have happily blown my brains out if that was the only way to make it end.

    There are many arguments to be made pro and con with regard to drug legalization/restriction, but the increasing level of restriction against legitimate painkillers is disgraceful. One of the great inventions of mankind is that of medicines to relieve suffering…for us to throw those under the bus in the pursuit of some pointless war against drugs is a national embarassment.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Forces build up durring a Great Depression which overwhelm economically foolish Government rules. The Government will soon realize that they could tax the drugs, and pocket the Billions that at present are going into the pockets of Crimials. They also realize that they can save on enforcement, and prison costs.
    Welcome to Great Depression 2.0 drugs will soon be legalized, because the Government is broke and needs the money.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service