Reduce Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drug abuse has been recognized as a national problem since 1914, when the Harrison Narcotics Act separated medical and nonmedical drug use – criminalizing the nonmedical use and sale of drugs but permitting legitimate medical use of drugs with high abuse potential. The explosive growth of benzodiazepines use (e.g., Valium, and Xanax) in the early 1960s fueled widespread abuse of these drugs. However, it was not until the dramatic increase in the use of opioid painkillers that began in the 1990s that prescription drug abuse became a deadly epidemic, as measured by the sharply rising annual death toll from overdoses. 

The most commonly abused classes of controlled substances are:

-    Opioids: used to treat pain
-    Central nervous system (CNS) depressants: used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders
-    Stimulants: used to treat sleep disorders, ADHD and obesity

New initiatives to prevent rampant access to these prescribed medicines have been developed in response, such as improvements in the electronic monitoring of sales, efforts to shut down “pill mills,” and in education of physicians and patients about the risks of prescription drug abuse. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently promoted the use of abuse-resistant formulations of amusable medicines, a policy pioneered by IBH over a decade ago. These new initiatives have made prescription opioids harder to obtain for nonmedical uses and more expensive to buy on illegal drug markets at a time that heroin purity is up and its price is down. 

The prevailing drug policy narrative is that the growing heroin epidemic is primarily the result of two decades of over-prescribing of opioid pain medications.  However, while 80% of heroin users used a prescription opioid before they first used heroin, the vast majority, over 96%, of people who have used a prescription opioid nonmedically have not transitioned to using heroin.  Five years after the initial nonmedical use of a prescription opioid, only 3.6% ever used any heroin.  Among prescription opiate users, the people most vulnerable to switching to heroin are those who are also abusers of other drugs including alcohol.   

IBH President Robert L. DuPont, MD describes the devastating effects of the opioid epidemic.

The treatment policy response to the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic has been to encourage the use of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) available through the office-based physician prescription of buprenorphine rather than an older form of MAT, methadone maintenance, available through methadone clinics.  A third form of MAT, naltrexone, an opioid antagonist, is now available in daily oral form or as a once-a-month injection.  It is far less commonly used than buprenorphine or methadone. 

For a number of years IBH has focused on the outcomes of alternative treatments for opioid dependence.  MAT only has benefit during the period when patients take the medications, and even then while in treatment many MAT patients continue to use alcohol and other drugs. The large majority of opioid-addicted patients who enter MAT often leave treatment early and against medical advice. A relatively small percentage of patients remain in contact with the providing prescriber for as much as one year. Most of the patients who terminate MAT relapse quickly to opioid use, often with fatal outcomes.  The mismatch between the chronicity of the disease of addiction and effective treatment is striking. There are a number of successful models of opioid addiction treatment that IBH has identified and studied. By focusing on MAT we do not imply that drug-free treatment has lower dropout rates or less drug use while patients are in treatment. The reality is that all forms of addiction treatment need to focus on the goal of long-term recovery, an outcome that unfortunately is the exception for treatment (see Improve Treatment).