Today, at Capital Region BOCES, in an effort to help combat an unprecedented spike in prescription drug abuse and too-often related heroin use in the Capital Region, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer launched a campaign to keep painkillers that contain hydrocodone out of the wrong hands. Studies have shown that there is a significant subset of heroin users who become addicted first to hydrocodone and opioids. In efforts to obtain a less expensive alternative to illicit prescription pills, too many hydrocodone users switch over to heroin.
The Capital Region has not been spared: in a series of recent drug raids, city and state police have seized hundreds of bags of heroin, hydrocodone and oxycodone pills and other drugs from numerous homes. In a recent manslaughter case, a local woman is accused of hitting and killing a bicyclist while on numerous prescription drugs. In addition, there have been several pharmacy thefts in recent months where the individual has stolen hydrocodone. 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 in the wrong hands, is another minute that families could suffer from the hydrocodone epidemic that too often imprisons or even kills Capital Region residents," said Schumer. "There have been too many recent crimes surrounding prescription drugs and subsequent heroin use in the Capital Region 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 the Capital Region."
Schumer was joined by members of the community that have been directly impacted by this epidemic, including a local Albany-area resident currently in rehab for prescription drug abuse, Laura Combs, Director of Substance Abuse Services at Capital Region BOCES, Albany County District Attorney David Soares, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple, Colonie Supervisor Paula Mahan 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. The Upstate New York Poison Control Center reported over 12,800 cases of prescription drug abuse in 2011 in its 54 county region, and they estimate that abuse is up over 150% in recent years. Over the past year, Schumer has worked closely and effectively with the FDA 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.
Often, prescription drugs serve as a gateway for other illegal drugs. 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 increases in nonmedical use of opioid pain relievers and nonmedical 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 found 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 the Capital Region, 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 thathydrocodone was originally misclassified as a Schedule III drug. Because of its' highly addictive properties, it is better classified as a Schedule II narcotic. Much of it is prescribed for pain that accompanies work-related injuries. Under the new restrictions of The Safe Prescribing Act of 2013, a written prescription or electronic prescription would be required for drugs containing hydrocodone signed by the practitioner. 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. Each prescription for these drugs cannot exceed a 30-day supply. When issuing multiple prescriptions for Schedule II substances, an individual practitioner may issue a maximum of three prescriptions at once, authorizing the patient to receive a total of up to a 90-day supply of a Schedule II controlled substance. Multiple prescription are only acceptable 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. In addition, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI tend to focus more resources on Schedule II drugs, particularly in their efforts to combat larger drug trafficking organizations.
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 the Capital Region as he unveiled his plan to crack down on the opiate epidemic that is sweeping the state:
· In April 2013, six individuals were arrested after a drug raid in Saratoga Springs by city and State police. In their possession, the group had 245 bags of heroin, several ounces of cocaine, crack, marijuana, hydrocodone and oxycodone pills, and more.
· In September 2012, a woman was allegedly under the influence of hydrocodone and oxycodone when she struck and killed a bicyclist while in her vehicle.
· The Albany District Attorney's Office cited a variety of cases that involve people stealing painkillers directly from pharmacies for use, as well as cases where pharmacy workers steal these types of medications and sell them illegally for profit.
· The DAs office also noted a trend in which local individuals have been caught forging fake prescriptions or "shopping" around to a variety of doctors and pharmacies to obtain these drugs for no legitimate medical purpose.
· In addition to routine traffic stops yielding the illegal possession of hydrocodone, it is also not uncommon for investigators to uncover hydrocodone among drugs like cocaine and heroin when raiding a drug house.
· In January 2013, 3 co-defendants ran a scheme to steal over 11,000 pills, including hydrocodone, from a local pharmacy.
· One defendant was arrested in 2012 for entering dentist's offices after hours and complaining of emergency tooth pain, getting a script for any painkiller which would be written, most often hydrocodone, and then move on to another dentist.
· In 2010 one defendant attempted to break into a Rite-Aid pharmacy after hours looking for pain meds for use, including hydrocodone and Lortab.
· One defendant was caught in possession of Oxycontin when arrested in 2010, but also admitted use of hydrocodone and heroin prior to drug court.
· In 2012 one defendant robbed a pharmacy with a note stating he had a gun and obtained over 130 hydrocodone pills. This individual was also a heroin user.