WASHINGTON - President Bush's national anti-drug strategy, released today, for the first time targets the use of pain relievers, sedatives and stimulants for nonmedical purposes, a problem that has exploded in the last decade.
A key part of the new strategy involves government efforts to help states develop monitoring systems to track a patient's use of prescription medicine. The monitoring programs flag cases that indicate a pattern of abuse, such as "doctor shopping," where a patient gets prescriptions for drugs from multiple physicians.
Prescription medicine now ranks second, behind marijuana, among drugs most abused by adults and young people, said the report by the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy. It cited a recent study by the Health and Human Services Department.
Twenty states have prescription monitoring programs, the report said. John Walters, director of the drug policy office, said he expects to expand the program to 11 more states by next year. About $10 million in federal funds will bankroll the expansion.
With painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin widely available on the Internet, "pill mills" or rogue online pharmacies will come under increased scrutiny.
The Drug Enforcement Administration plans to aggressively pursue pharmacies selling controlled substances illegally over the Internet, an effort that will include deploying modern Web crawler technology to search out those peddling prescription drugs online.
Physician training and education programs will also be a part of the new campaign.
The Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based group that promotes alternatives including the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes, was skeptical of Bush's strategy. It saw unintended consequences that will end up causing more pain and suffering.
"The principal impact of this campaign when you step up the law enforcement response is that doctors will err on the side of under-treating pain," said alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann. "So any time a doctor is dealing with a patient in pain, their first instinct is not to prescribe enough." Since 1995, emergency room visits from prescription drug abuse have risen 163 percent, the report said.
To highlight the problem among youth, it noted a University of Michigan study that found abuse by high school seniors of Vicodin more than double the use of cocaine, Ecstasy or methamphetamine.
One in 10 seniors, it said, reported nonmedical use of the painkiller.
Mark Surks of Kendall Park, N.J., who lost his son, Jason, a few months ago to a drug overdose, said he had no idea the 19-year-old was buying OxyContin and the anti-anxiety drug Xanax on the Internet
"I was blindsided," Surks said. "There was no evidence that my son had ever been using any kind of drugs. He was a good kid. He was involved in the religious community, in sports and in music. He had tons of friends. It never crossed my mind that prescription drugs were a problem." Surks praised the new focus by the White House on prescription drugs.
Bush outlined other facets of his anti-drug strategy during his State of the Union address in January. They include additional financing for drug-prevention efforts and a sharp increase in funds for schools that want to use drug testing to expand early intervention programs.
His proposal to boost funding from $2 million to $23 million for student drug testing has come under fire from some parents, school administrators and civil liberties groups concerned about privacy violations and the effectiveness of the testing.
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