- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

The Bush administration, for the first time, is planning a coordinated drug strategy targeting the illegal diversion and abuse of prescription drugs — mainly pain relievers, sedatives and stimulants — that has erupted nationwide in the past decade.

“The nonmedical use of prescription drugs has become an increasingly widespread and serious problem in this country, one that calls for immediate action,” said John Walters, who heads the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, upon announcing the new program yesterday.

“The federal government is embarking on a comprehensive effort to ensure that potentially addictive medications are dispensed and used safely and effectively.”

Mr. Walters said recent data shows that prescription-drug abuse has increased at an “alarming rate” in the past 10 years; that nonmedical use of narcotic pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants and sedatives ranked second only behind marijuana as a category of illicit drug abuse among adults and youth; and that 6.2 million Americans abused prescription drugs during 2002.

He also said 13.7 percent of youths ages 12 to 17 abused prescription drugs at least once in their lifetimes and that emergency-room visits resulting from abuse of narcotic pain relievers had increased 163 percent since 1995.

More than 10 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, and the new White House strategy seeks to balance the need for effective pain-management therapies with the prevention of misuse, abuse and diversion of drugs such as Oxycontin and Vicodin.

Mr. Walters was joined by Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Mark McClellan, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) head Karen Tandy, Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.

The new strategy incorporates education of medical professionals and consumers and outreach to businesses involved in Internet commerce, pharmaceutical manufacturers and pharmacies, as well as increased investigation and enforcement activities by the DEA aimed at the illegal sale, use or diversion of controlled substances, including those occurring over the Internet.

“Criminals who divert legal drugs into the illegal market are no different from a cocaine or heroin dealer peddling poisons on the street corner,” Mrs. Tandy said. “DEA is aggressively working to put an end to this illicit practice, whether it occurs in doctors’ offices or cyberspace, and ensure the integrity of our medical system.”

Congress also is working to address prescription-drug diversion, said Mr. Davis, who said he was “particularly pleased” that the new strategy addresses the issue of prescription-drug abuse. He said he will introduce legislation soon to address the illegal and potentially deadly sale of prescription drugs over the Internet.

“The Internet creates an easy environment for illegitimate pharmacy sites to bypass traditional regulations and established safeguards. My legislation addresses these issues and makes it difficult for unlawful prescribing to occur,” he said.

President Bush’s 2005 budget requests $138 million for diversion-control programs. The Office of National Drug Control Policy seeks to reduce illegal drug use by 10 percent in two years and by 25 percent in five years through what Mr. Walters called “a balanced and comprehensive approach of stopping drug use before it starts, healing America’s drug users and disrupting the market for illegal drugs.”

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