When our children are infants or toddlers, we install contraptions that keep them from getting into the cabinets where, for example, the cleaning chemicals are stored. By the time they are big enough to know better, we aren't thinking about the dangers lurking in the cabinets. But we should be.
This week, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania participated in a discussion about prescription-drug abuse. It took place at Villanova University and included members of the academic community, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and the organization Security on Campus.
As parents, we often think about keeping our kids away from street drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin even as we fail to realize that the medicine cabinets in our homes hold more enticing and dangerous invitations. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, increases in unintentional overdose death rates in recent years have been driven by a class of prescription drugs called opioid analgesics, which are more commonly known by their brand names: OxyContin, Vicodin, and Demerol, among others. Since 2003, opioid analgesics have been involved in more deaths than heroin and cocaine combined.
High school- and college-age youths don't have to go into a dark alley or some other dangerous place to find these drugs. Even if they aren't in your medicine cabinet, they could be in the medicine cabinet of someone your children know or someone they encounter on campus. According to the CDC, 76 percent of prescription-drug abusers acquired drugs that had been prescribed for someone else.
In the past two years, we at the U.S. Attorney's Office have charged or convicted at least four doctors who were abusing their licenses, not to mention the Hippocratic Oath, by selling prescriptions or prescription drugs to anyone who asked. Their offices became pill mills where drug addicts could drop off an order, pay a fee, and then pick up their drug of choice. You can find media reports about doctors who will write a prescription for the attention-deficit drug Adderall for any college-age student who claims a set of symptoms that can be easily discovered on the Web. Doctors like these are the exception, not the rule, but they do exist.
So what can or should be done? Federal agencies continue to consider and pursue a range of approaches to the problem. In 2010, for example, the Drug Enforcement Administration kicked off a National Prescription Drug Take-Back program, giving citizens a means to safely and effectively clean out their medicine cabinets. We know we have more work to do, and this week's summit was just one of many steps we're taking.