U.S. Sen Charles Schumer wants the federal Food and Drug Administration to make it harder for people to get painkillers that contain hydrocodone.
Hydrocodone is one of the most heavily prescribed drugs in New York state and nationwide, Schumer said during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. He said reclassifying it as a Schedule II controlled substance - as recommended by the federal Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory Committee - would make it harder for people to access the painkilling drug, which was named in more than 12,800 cases of prescription drug abuse in 2011, according to the Upstate New York Poison Control Center.
"Currently, doctors prescibe this drug for anything, from wisdom tooth extractions to broken bones," Schumer said. "But too often, this painkiller becomes a cold-blooded killer to many of our friends, students and parents.
Sen. Charles Schumer
(Enterprise file photo)
"It's prescribed sometimes for things that are not needed - you know, you have severe pain, you need this - but there are other less potent and less deadly drugs that could be prescribed for certain things. ... It's often prescribed too much. If you have a wisdom tooth (removed), and let's say it's very painful - you need it for three days, but the doctor might prescribe 30 pills. So there are far too many pills around."
Schumer said the most recent data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control shows that overdose deaths involving opioid painkillers exceed deaths involving cocaine and heroin combined.
"When we hear heroin or cocaine, we go, 'Oh my God, those are horrible, deadly drugs,'" he said. "Then we hear hydrocodone, and no one says the same thing, but it's much worse."
Prescription drug abuse has been a big problem in the North Country. Just this week, the Essex County Drug Task Force arrested two people for the sale and possession of hydrocodone and suboxone as part of a year-long investigation. There were 1,070 cases of prescription drug abuse reported in the North Country in 2011, according to figures compiled by Schumer's office.
Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague told the Enterprise that the last several drug sweeps have focused on prescription drugs, "most notably hydrocodone," she said.
"There needs to be tightened restrictions to eliminate access to these drugs by those who are not entitled to such medicine," Sprague said. "Tightening the access to hydrocodone and placing it on a schedule like the highly recognized illegal drugs - like cocaine - will increase the severity of the crime and enhance the possible sentences.
"The old way of thinking that these are just prescription meds is taking a back seat and the education and the reality of the situation is that these drugs kill in the wrong hands and lead to more negative impacts on our society."
Sprague said it's common for investigators to uncover "fraud offenses" when dealing with the illegal sale of prescription drugs. She said many people pay for their prescriptions through Medicaid or Medicare, and then sell them.
"(If) we stop the access to the drugs for those who don't need them medically but rely on them for income, we decrease crime in more ways than one and we keep our communities safer," Spague said.
Schumer said the biggest hurdle to cracking down on hydrocodone is getting FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg to accept the Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory Committee's recommendation.
Changing hydrocodone from a Schedule III to a Schedule II controlled substance means it would be defined as having a high potential for abuse. Schedule II drugs require an electronic or written prescription that must be the presciber, and refills need to be individually approved by a doctor.
Schedule II drugs include morphine, methamphetamine and amphetamine.