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Lawmakers Discuss Ways to Fight Prescription Drug Abuse

At a Senate panel hearing Tuesday on prescription drug abuse, doctors called upon the Legislature to provide "better education to physicians" about “how addictive these drugs are.”

By Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
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Speaking Tuesday at a Senate panel hearing on prescription drug abuse, doctors and law enforcement officials touted the importance of agencies sharing information to more effectively look for pharmacies and doctors involved in the usage of prescription drugs outside of medically sanctioned purposes.

Despite the recent passage of tougher penalties, prescription drug abuse has continued to be a problem, speakers said Tuesday. But doctors told lawmakers that many involved in prescription drug abuse are not drug dealers but addicts who first got a prescription for legitimate pain.

Deaths from accidental overdoses increased in Texas by more than 150 percent from 1999 to 2007, and a large part of that, said Dr. Emilie Becker of the Texas Department of State Health Services, is due to a “rising tide of opiate prescriptions,” including vicodin, hydrocodone and oxycodone.

“Houston has become ground zero for this,” said Harris County District Court Judge Ryan Patrick, a former prosecutor, “of people accumulating tens of thousands of pills in a matter of months.”

In 2011, the Legislature made “doctor shopping” — going to multiple doctors for the same narcotics — a felony. Several months ago, the Texas Department of Public Safety launched an online database of prescription drug data, allowing law enforcement to easily search for what medication any patient in the state received in the last year.

Doctors and lawmakers said they are finding that many prescription drug abusers are, in Becker’s words, “white, middle-class, and middle-aged.” These people often die from overdoses or get into traffic accidents because they are driving under the influence of opiates, she said.

“The public health impact is enormous,” Becker said, adding that many of the abusers are also teenagers who were not prescribed the medication themselves. “They’re going from grandma’s pill case to her grandson’s backpack,” she said. She speculated that the rise in addiction for middle-aged people may be due in part to the effects of obesity on back pain.

Doctors, Becker said, are more likely to prescribe addictive opiates, rather than weight-loss medication, because it will get them better reviews from patients. “It seems the state should have a better handle on this deadly instrument, the pen in the doctor’s office,” she said.

Becker called for the Legislature to look into providing “better education to physicians” about “how addictive these drugs are.”

Sgt. John Kowal of the Houston Police Department’s narcotics division suggested making the DPS database more accessible to parole officers, so they can check if their parolees are filing multiple prescriptions for narcotics and divert them to treatment programs.

Some advocates worried, however, that if enforcement is not practiced in the right way, difficulties would ensue for patients with legitimate needs for the drugs. “We don’t want to interfere further with legitimate pain needs,” said Gloria Duke, a professor at the UT-Tyler School of Nursing.

Sharon Brigner, of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, agreed. “We don’t want to limit usage for legitimate purposes,” she said.

Travis Leete, a staff attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, encouraged lawmakers to make sure that prescription drug abusers are not imprisoned, but rather diverted into community service and outpatient programs. “We’re talking about low-level offenders,” he said.

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