Commentary: Prescription Drug Abuse: Unique Challenge for Law Enforcement

    Prescription drug abuse is unlike any other type of drug addiction. People who wouldn’t dream of smoking marijuana or snorting cocaine can find themselves addicted to painkillers that have been prescribed by their doctor.

    In Utah, prescription drug abuse is our number one drug problem, and the number one cause of accidental death, ahead of car crashes.

    I got a taste of how difficult it can be to get off pain medication in 2007, after a motorcycle accident crushed my left leg. I took several types of painkillers as I went through multiple surgeries. When the external frame finally came off my leg, I realized I still needed painkillers. One Friday night, with my leg hurting badly, I came home planning on taking a pain pill. That’s when my wife told me I was done with painkillers—she had gotten rid of them. I was only taking 10 mg of OxyContin, but I still felt I needed it to get by. Now I understand how people can feel worse than they ever have in their life and know that if they take one pill they will feel better than they ever have.

    We are seeing several particularly disturbing aspects of prescription drug abuse. One is teenagers’ casual attitude about these medications. They see prescriptions in their parents’ medicine cabinet and think, ‘How dangerous can it be if a doctor says it’s safe to take?’ Another is the number of people who are becoming addicted to prescription painkillers and then switching to heroin, which is less expensive.

    This epidemic presents unique challenges for law enforcement. Instead of targeting drug dealers, law enforcement officials often are confronted with patients in pain and doctors who want to help them. We need to educate both doctors and patients about the addictive nature of prescription drugs, while at the same time preventing people from “doctor shopping” to collect prescriptions for opioids.

    We are addressing the problem on several fronts. In Utah, we formed a Strike Force several years ago that is working to reduce the availability of prescription drugs for abuse, and educate the public about the risks associated with prescription painkillers and why they should not be using these drugs for non-medical reasons.

    Utah also recently passed a law that requires doctors to take continuing medical education courses on controlled substance prescribing for each licensing period.

    One key feature of our campaign to combat prescription drug abuse is our website, This site explains the problems of prescription drug abuse, and how to safely use, store and dispose of prescription drugs.

    Utah’s controlled substance monitoring database is now receiving prescription information in real time, to make doctor shopping more difficult for people seeking multiple prescriptions. Ultimately I would like to see the creation of a nationwide electronic prescription database that would do away with paper prescriptions altogether. Such a system would go a long way toward cutting down on prescription drug fraud.

    Because our state has already been focused on prescription drug abuse for the past three years, we are ahead of many other states in tackling the problem. But with many drug monitoring databases already or soon to be set up in many states, and National Prescription Drug Take-Back Days collecting hundreds of thousands of pounds of unwanted or expired medications for safe and proper disposal, we are beginning to make progress nationwide.

    This fight is costly, and in this difficult economic climate we are competing with many important needs. One way in which I hope Utah can pay for the fight against prescription drug abuse is by setting aside a percentage of settlements made with pharmaceutical companies that we sued for fraud for inflating the cost of prescription drugs sold to the state Medicaid program. I am hoping our Legislature will agree to this plan.

    I am optimistic that through a combination of law enforcement and education of health care professionals and the public, we can greatly reduce the terrible toll that prescription drug abuse is taking on our state and our nation.

    Mark Shurtleff, Utah Attorney General

    By marks
    June 2011


    June 2011

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