Today, at Student Assistance Services in Tarrytown, in an effort to help combat an unprecedented spike in prescription drug abuse and too-often related heroin use in the lower Hudson Valley, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer launched a campaign to keep painkillers that contain hydrocodone out of the wrong hands. Studies and first-hand accounts in Westchester County have shown that there is a subset of heroin users who first were addicted to hydrocodone and opioids. In efforts to obtain a less expensive alternative to illicit prescription pills, too many hydrocodone users switch over to heroin.
Westchester County has not been spared: federal agents in addition to Peekskill and Westchester County police recently issued arrest warrants for a large crack and heroin distribution ring in the region. In March, a Croton-on-Hudson man with a history of possessing controlled substances died of a heroin overdose. And in January, a Yonkers pharmacy manager was arrested for illegally selling hundreds of thousands of dollars in prescription pills. Schumer therefore announced his bipartisan plan, the Safe Prescribing Act of 2013 to reclassify hydrocodone as a Schedule II controlled substance -- which would require a written or electronic prescription that must be signed by the practitioner, among other stricter requirements to authorize the use of this drug. Schumer's plan would include a number of other important features to combat this epidemic and still balance the needs of the medical community, legitimate users of such medications, and manufacturers.
"Every minute that the federal government waits to keep lethal prescription drugs from falling into the wrong hands, is another minute that families could suffer from the hydrocodone epidemic that too often imprisons or kills Westchester children and parents alike," said Schumer. "There have been too many recent tragedies surrounding prescription drugs and subsequent heroin use in the Lower Hudson Valley to ignore, and it's time to do more to balance the needs of patients that rely on these drugs for pain treatment, with those who are putting their lives and the surrounding community at risk."
Schumer continued, "Hydrocodone can be a deadly substance on its own, and it can often lead users to heroin for a cheaper high and that is why I am launching a plan to make hydrocodone a Schedule II drug to help close the floodgates of addiction and drug-related crime in Westchester."
Schumer joined members of the community that have been directly impacted by the opiate epidemic. This included a local Westchester parent who lost a son to drug abuse, a local Westchester teen who lost a parent, the CEO and staff members from Student Assistance Services, representatives from the Westchester County District Attorney's office, the Westchester County Police Department - Narcotics Division, and other stakeholders.
Hydrocodone is among the most widely prescribed drugs in New York and the country, has rapidly increased in abuse levels, and is highly dangerous. Schumer noted that in 2011, the Upstate New York Poison Control Center reported over 12,800 cases of prescription drug abuse. In the Hudson Valley, there were 1,428 reported cases of prescription drug abuse in 2011, according to the Upstate Poison Control Center. Over the past year, Schumer has worked to help stem the abuse of hydrocodone, and highlighted the importance of policy that strikes a balance between appropriate access to pain relief medications, and preventing prescription drugs from getting in the wrong hands.
In February 2013, the Center for Disease Control unveiled a study that showed a spike in heroin use and overdose death in recent years, and evidence suggests that this is a result of an increase in nonmedical use of opioid pain relievers as those users transition to heroin use. The CDC studied data from the 2002 to 2004 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health as compared to the 2008 through 2010 surveys, to examine the patterns of heroin use and the increase in recent years. There was a spike in heroin use among non-prescription drug abusers between 2002-2004 and 2008-2010, with most reporting nonmedical use of hydrocodone/opioid pain relievers before initiating heroin. The study also found that the rate of subsequent heroin use from pills has increased nationally, about 20 percent, since 2004.
In response to the recent scourge of hydrocodone abuse in Westchester and throughout the Lower Hudson Valley, Schumer is pushing the Safe Prescribing Act of 2013 to reclassify hydrocodone as a Schedule II drug. Schumer is cosponsoring this bipartisan legislation with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). These three senators, along with a larger bipartisan group, argue that hydrocodone was originally misclassified as a Schedule III drug. Because of its' highly addictive properties, it is better classified as a Schedule II narcotic.
Under the classification of a Schedule II drug, a written prescription or electronic prescription signed by the practitioner would be required for drugs containing hydrocodone. The refilling of a prescription for a controlled substance listed in Schedule II is prohibited; therefore a new prescription must be issued each time a patient needs a refill. Schumer noted that in terms of issuance of multiple prescriptions for Schedule II substances, an individual practitioner may issue multiple prescriptions authorizing the patient to receive a total of up to a 90-day supply of a Schedule II controlled substance provided several conditions, including a legitimate medical purpose for each drug, written instructions on each prescription, determination that undue risk of abuse is not created, and permissibility under state law.
The legislation would also require the GAO to conduct an oversight study on how this change impacts legitimate use of pain medication, particularly for patients in rural areas and nursing homes. Schumer noted that while New York State considers hydrocodone a Schedule II narcotic, a federal law is critical to ensure that abusers or dealers cannot easily obtain the drug from neighboring states.
Schumer acknowledged that many patients seek the legitimate use of hydrocodone for pain management, and access for those individuals should be preserved. However, it is among some of the most highly abused substances, and can cause serious health conditions, and often death, as a result. In addition to serving as a potential catalyst of chronic dependence, crime and suicide, hydrocodone spurs a number of serious health side effects, including nausea, constipation, urinary retention and in higher amounts, depressed respiration. While long-term use can lead to dependence and addiction, withdrawal symptoms include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, and vomiting. Severe liver damage can occur when large doses of hydrocodone in combination with acetaminophen, as is commonly practiced.
Schumer pointed to a recent scourge of hydrocodone and heroin abuse in Westchester as he unveiled his plan to crack down on this epidemic in the Lower Hudson Valley:
· From 2011 to January 2013, a store manager operated at a pharmacy in Yonkers, New York, but was not a licensed pharmacist or physician in the State of New York. The investigation revealed that the manager was distributing large amounts of opiates by filling prescriptions for several individuals that he knew were fraudulently issued without a legitimate medical purpose.
· In March, one Croton resident died and his brother was hospitalized after an apparent overdose of heroin (both in their 20s).
· In March, the FBI and county police arrested 15 men from two alleged drug gangs operating out of the Dunbar Heights public housing complex. Officials say the arrests came shortly after two brothers overdosed on heroin in Cortlandt. Authorities reported that since December, about a half-dozen people have lost their lives to an overdose.
· In February, state and local police reported at least 29 arrests in connection with heroin sales and possession in Putnam and northern Westchester counties in the weeks since four men died of apparent heroin overdoses. This was part of a broad effort to reduce the flow of narcotics into Westchester County, which has been attributed to four heroin-related deaths in late 2012.
· In January, police arrested five people on charges of drug possession and sales, accusing them of distributing heroin and crack cocaine in the city and surrounding Cortlandt neighborhoods. Both were charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell, a felony.
· Last December, three individuals, all under 30 years old, were found with several bundles of heroin. As a result they were charged with two counts of Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance in the third degree with intent to sell and two counts of Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the third degree, all felonies.
· Last July, a Westchester cardiologist was accused of distributing 2,000 prescription pills a month. Police were alerted to the doctor's alleged activities by patients who reported them to Yonkers police and by pharmacists who reported the frequency with which the doctor prescribed these lethal painkillers.
· In September of 2011, a Westchester County police officer assigned to Westchester County Airport, three Transportation Security Administration officers and a Florida state trooper have been arrested on charges of participating in a conspiracy to distribute tens of thousands of prescription pills through the county airport. 20 people arrested for involvement. Received more than three years in federal prison after he pleaded guilty to accepting bribes to let a prescription-drug dealer move cash proceeds through Westchester County Airport.
· In March of 2011, three individuals in their 20s died in Westchester from heroin overdoses. Another one was hospitalized.
Schumer also highlighted the value of the federal Drug Free Community grant program, which has a mission to help communities around the country to be organized and equipped to deal with their individual substance abuse problems in a comprehensive and coordinated manner. The program explicitly recognizes that federal anti-drug resources must be invested at the community level. This program is unique in that federal support is contingent upon a community demonstrating local commitment and resolve to address its drug problem, before it is eligible to receive any federal funds. Schumer offered his support to six communities in Westchester County that currently have applications into the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) for 2013 grant funding. Those communities are Blind Brook, Yonkers, Pelham, Port Chester, Yorktown and Peekskill, and all had representatives at Senator Schumer's event today.