War on prescription drugs. War on us

Last time, I wrote a piece on the nightmare that getting pain medicine has become for those of us who take heavy narcotics. Due to the degenerative nature of autoimmune diseases, pain and discomfort are at the very heart of these illnesses. As you may have seen in the feedback from the previous post, it is not just me that is having an issue, and it is not just a problem here in New York.

I have to admit that I did not expect such a large response when the column went live. I knew that many of us who suffer from autoimmune disease take pain medication, but I didn’t think so many were having problems, and in so many different areas of the United States, too! California, Maryland, Ohio, South Carolina, and Florida, were just several of the states that people contacted me from. Despite the vast distances between these locales, the stories were nearly identical. Most involved a patient such as myself – someone who was at the stage in their disease where the only remedy for quality of life was narcotics. Lately, when these people tried to obtain their pills, the pharmacy they had been going to for years suddenly denied them the much-needed medicine. The excuses given ranged from new laws being passed to stock and ordering issues, but the result always ended up the same – once again, the people who need help most got screwed.

So, here we are now, with the government making it more difficult every day to obtain medicine that we need to live our lives. Of course, the DEA and other agencies responsible all spout the same excuse, and that’s to blame the growing issue of prescription medication abuse. Well, I’d like to clear up a few facts about this so-called epidemic, and shed light on some of the falsities that the authorities are basing their claims on. Before that, though, let me give you a crash course on the history of the “War on Drugs.”

This country takes a very strong stand officially when it comes to drugs. In fact, drug-related crimes and the criminals who commit them have it worse than any other offenders – murderers, rapists, and thieves can all get lesser prison terms than those arrested for the use or sale of illegal substances.  This stems back to the 1980s, when the so-called “war” began. The government implemented mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of selling, holding, or even using illegal narcotics. Anyone who got caught with five grams of crack-cocaine would get a minimum sentence of five years. That’s five years in prison for the equivalent of two packets of sugar. If you happened to have 20 packets on you, well, that’s going to be at least ten years in prison. It doesn’t matter if you are a first time offender or a third time loser, either – the minimums ensured that. Inevitably, since this anti-drug-abuse law was enacted in 1986, the prison population in this country has increased tenfold.

Of course, no one can object to taking a hard stance against cocaine and heroin dealers, but the problem arises when you take into account that this “War on Drugs,” has completely failed. After spending almost $1 trillion dollars over thirty years, the narcotic problem hasn’t lessened here in the U.S. The drugs coming in from Mexico have actually increased, so much so that the average price for a gram of pure cocaine is now about $175 US dollars. That is almost 70% less than it was when the drug war began, which shows just how much easier it is to get cocaine now in America.

As you can imagine, this utter failure causes embarrassment for the authorities. In order to lessen this humiliation and turn the spotlight away, the government came up with a genius idea to market their supposed “success.” A very clever individual realized that even though the authorities couldn’t win the War on Drugs, the government could still make it look like progress was being made. You might have seen the result of this when you went to buy cold medicine a few years ago and were told you couldn’t purchase antihistamines any longer without your driver’s license. Never mind that you and your wife might need different brands, now you could only buy one box of cold medicine at a time. In addition, you couldn’t purchase more cold medicine until enough time had passed to allow you to take every pill in the box in the recommended fashion. It was a huge annoyance, but it had the benefit of making it impossible for the general public to ignore how much the government was doing to fight the methamphetamine epidemic in America’s southern states. It was irrelevant that most meth labs didn’t use cold medicine to make their product, or that most simply stole the antihistamines without paying for them. As long as John Q. Public turned to his wife and said, “well, I guess this helps fight the drug epidemic,” then the government got their public relations win.

Now, there is an epidemic of pain medicine abuse in this country.  It supposedly stems back to when Oxycontin was first released, and doctors were prescribing the narcotic like crazy. Prodded by the pharmaceutical companies, these physicians gave Oxycontin to patients with minor, medium, and severe pain. Incredibly, even doctors who attended reputable medical schools somehow missed the fact that a narcotic painkiller, derived from Morphine, would produce a physical and psychological addiction. It’s a difficult pill to swallow, I know, but the end result was a slew of pain-medicine addicted patients who turned to street dealers to fill their need once their scripts ran out.

Since then, prescription pain pill abuse has only gotten worse. Every week, there is a new story on the news about a violent crime committed that somehow involved the sale or theft of narcotic medication. The government is attempting to curtail the problem, but is failing once again. So, here we are in a familiar position. With no real results to speak of, the authorities are falling back on a tried and true method. They are making very visible changes to the way that people like us have to obtain our pain medicine. With each alteration, our lives become just a little bit more complicated, and we come one step closer to simply giving up on narcotics altogether.  Think about it – every time you tell a friend or relative about the horror you went through to get your pain pills, they get a first-hand account of just how much the government is doing to fight the prescription drug abuse epidemic. They might sympathize with you at the time, but they also go home and think that the DEA is actually doing something. It’s a grassroots PR campaign, and we are all unwitting dupes.

Look, no one can say that there isn’t a drug abuse problem in this country. It’s nothing new, though, we have always been lovers of illicit narcotics – from the Opium wars in China in the 1800s to the Afghanistan Poppy fields in the early 2000s. There will always be a market for drugs, and there will always be people who commit horrible crimes to obtain them. The irony of the situation is that serious drug dealers aren’t obtaining their pain pill product from a script they are filling at CVS. Similarly, most meth cookers aren’t sending some kid to 10 different stores to get 10 boxes of cold medicine to make one half bag of methamphetamine. If anything, these laws might affect a few casual abusers or a handful of small-time dealers. The only people these statutes are really hurting in great numbers are those of us who actually use the products legitimately and need them more than most.

What does the future hold? Well, I want to make a prediction here and now, in black and white, so I can say “I told you so.” Soon, many of the narcotics we use now to control our pain will be outlawed completely. The government will weigh the negative publicity that people like us will create against the potential benefits to their marketing of the War on Drugs, and we will lose. If, by some chance, we make too much noise to be ignored, then they will call us “legal drug addicts,” and insinuate that we abuse our scripts for pleasure, even though very few patients with chronic pain go on to abuse narcotics. As I said, I’ve had police tell me “no one needs that much medicine,” when I had to report a lost script to get an early refill. You can call me a prophet of the airwaves when it happens, but we will all suffer if I’m correct, with only Tylenol #3 left to treat our pain. So, let’s try to stem the tide.

“What can I do?” You might be asking. Well, there are several ways to prevent this trend from continuing. The first and best way to help is to spread the word! Tell anyone who will listen what the government is doing, and make sure they understand why it’s wrong. Tell them that you use the medicine to improve your quality of life, and that the DEA doesn’t even have a process in place for pharmacies to increase their monthly limit of narcotics ordered! Also, e-mail, call, write, and visit your local congressman or senator. These people are your representatives in Albany and, ultimately, Washington D.C! They work for you, and they must take the time to see you. Don’t be disrespectful or rude, but be assertive and make these people understand just what a life without pain medicine will mean for people like us! Lastly, make sure your doctors and other medical professionals know what is going on. You’d be surprised how many physicians live inside a bit of a bubble and forget that there is a real world outside their hospital or exam room. Tell them just how much this issue is affecting you, and ask them to speak to anyone in charge!

If the current trend continues and we end up with no narcotics, then we only have ourselves to blame. Speak up, make noise, and let’s ensure that if we go down hurting, we are going to be a pain too – right in the butt of everyone responsible!