Painkillers reshape 'war on drugs'

Published: Tuesday, July 17 2012 8:34 a.m. MDT

It may be time to refocus efforts in the "war on drugs," according to experts, as legal painkillers are quickly becoming one of the most deadly and accessible drugs in America.

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Some of the most dangerous and addictive drugs do not need to be smuggled surreptitiously across the border into the United States; they are already here. And they are legal.

"America’s drug problem is shifting from illicit substances like cocaine to abuse of prescription painkillers, a change that is forcing policy makers to re-examine the long and expensive strategy of trying to stop illegal drugs from entering the United States," reports the New York Times.

Painkillers pose problems, experts say, because they are legal and are regularly prescribed by doctors, so patients may not recognize the potential harm for abuse in comparison to "harder" illegal drugs.

“It’s a lot easier to get than buying your street drugs," said Floyd Baker, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, in an article in The Real Truth. "If a doctor gives you an 800mg hydrocodone tablet it is safe, but when you start diluting it, mixing it with other drugs, that’s where the problem comes in. And since the drugs are legal with a prescription, government agencies are having a hard time stopping the abuse without also limiting access to those who actually need the medication."

U.S. policies on drugs came under scrutiny recently with a New Jersey mayor, Cory Booker, openly criticizing the "war on drugs" in a recent discussion via Reddit.

"The so called War on Drugs has not succeeded in making significant reductions in drug use, drug arrests or violence," the Democrat wrote during the Reddit "ask me anything" chat, according to a Huffington Post article. "We are pouring huge amounts of our public resources into this current effort that are bleeding our public treasury and unnecessarily undermining human potential."

Efforts to capture drug lords in Latin America and curtail smuggling are still high on the government's anti-drug list, but experts say it may be time to refocus and reorganize strategies.

"Still, law enforcement remains a major element of the government’s strategy, as the deployment of a commando-style squad of Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Honduras has demonstrated," reports the New York Times. "And the Obama administration has ruled out drug legalization, despite expanding support for the idea in Latin America, while designating about 60 percent of the federal antidrug budget of roughly $25 billion a year to supply side efforts, with 40 percent to demand, as it has for decades."

Painkillers may be the beginning of the addiction cycle for many individuals, as experts say they can lead to the notion that other drugs are safe or medically beneficial to consume.

"Prescription drug abuse has taken a position next to marijuana as a type of gateway to heavier illicit substances," according to The Real Truth. "Partially as a result of the nation’s overmedicated condition, access to these drugs has never been easier. Doctors are over prescribing powerful painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin that are easy for users to abuse. Many are given prescription drugs for legitimate reasons, but end up addicted to them. And since these drugs are legal with a prescription, they desensitize people to other drugs, clearing the way for experimentation with more substances."

Cocaine still remains a large focus of government efforts, despite reports that cocaine use has been on the decline in the last few decades.

"Now the drugs most likely to land Americans in emergency rooms cannot be interdicted," according to the New York Times. "Studies show that prescription painkillers, and stimulants to a lesser extent, are the nation’s biggest drug problem. The same survey that identified 1.5 million cocaine users in 2010 found seven million users of 'psychotherapeutics.' Of the 36,450 overdose deaths in the United States in 2008, 20,044 were from prescription painkillers, more than all illicit drugs combined."

Despite the apparent need to tackle the drug issue internally, it appears that government efforts still primarily are geared toward external mitigation.

"Momentum for a broader change in domestic drug policy — as in foreign policy — appears to be building," reports the New York Times. "D.E.A. officials say they have recently created 37 'tactical diversion squads' focusing on prescription drug investigations, with 26 more to be added over the next few years."

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