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Guest Op-Ed: Combating Prescription Drug Abuse by Senator Katherine Clark (D-Melrose)

BOSTON – The abuse of prescription painkillers has reached alarmingly high levels in our state, and this month the State Senate acted to mandate strict oversight of these powerfully addictive drugs.

We all are too familiar with the heartbreaking stories of opiate addiction, and we have seen the tremendous toll that drug abuse takes on too many families in our communities.  And unfortunately, the problem is getting more severe.

A 2009 report by the OxyContin and Heroin Commission found that Massachusetts has one of the highest rates of opiate abuse in the nation, causing 3,265 deaths from 2002 to 2007 and 23,369 hospitalizations in 2006 alone.  Opioid-related deaths are now the leading cause of accidental death in Massachusetts, surpassing motor vehicle accidents.  Sadly, our young people are being hit the hardest: half of all heroin and opiate-related detox admissions in Massachusetts are for patients under the age of 30.

Nationally, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reports that Vicodin is the second-most abused drug by high school seniors, behind marijuana.  And according to the Centers for Disease Control, more people are overdosing on prescription painkillers than on cocaine and heroin combined.  Data also show that the number of people dying from overdoses has increased proportionately to the growth in the amount of prescription painkillers sold annually.

We must combat this problem from many angles, and the legislation passed by the Senate includes measures to: promote prevention and increase public awareness; reduce the supply of pills available for diversion; crack down on fraudulent prescriptions; make it tougher for addicts and dealers to “doctor shop;” and increase access to information, treatment and substance abuse services.

Importantly, this bill would increase drug security by making enrollment in the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program mandatory.  The top 30 percent of prescribers, who provide 90 percent of all controlled substances, are required to enroll immediately.  All others would be phased-in over three years.  The bill also requires pharmacies, drug manufacturers and others to notify local police when reporting a theft or loss of a controlled substance, in addition to notifying the DEA as currently required.

Information on addiction risks, signs of dependency, treatment options and safe storage of drugs will be developed by the Department of Public Health and distributed by pharmacies.   The legislation also mandates security improvements to the forms that health professionals use to prescribe controlled substances.  And doctors and hospitals will be required to notify a parent or guardian of any minor treated for drug overdose and provide counseling and information prior to discharge.

I’m proud of the work the Senate has done, but I know we all have even more work to do to confront this dangerous trend.  If we don’t push forward, the results and the costs will be devastating not only to our healthcare system and our criminal justice system, but especially to our communities and our families.

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The preceeding article was provided by the Office of Massachusetts State Senator Katherine Clark (D-Melrose)

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