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Commentary: Prescription Drug Abuse: Unique Challenge for Law Enforcement


Prescription drug abuse is unlike any other type of drug addiction. People who wouldn’t dream of smoking marijuana or snorting cocaine can find themselves addicted to painkillers that have been prescribed by their doctor.

In Utah, prescription drug abuse is our number one drug problem, and the number one cause of accidental death, ahead of car crashes.

I got a taste of how difficult it can be to get off pain medication in 2007, after a motorcycle accident crushed my left leg. I took several types of painkillers as I went through multiple surgeries. When the external frame finally came off my leg, I realized I still needed painkillers. One Friday night, with my leg hurting badly, I came home planning on taking a pain pill. That’s when my wife told me I was done with painkillers—she had gotten rid of them. I was only taking 10 mg of OxyContin, but I still felt I needed it to get by. Now I understand how people can feel worse than they ever have in their life and know that if they take one pill they will feel better than they ever have.

We are seeing several particularly disturbing aspects of prescription drug abuse. One is teenagers’ casual attitude about these medications. They see prescriptions in their parents’ medicine cabinet and think, ‘How dangerous can it be if a doctor says it’s safe to take?’ Another is the number of people who are becoming addicted to prescription painkillers and then switching to heroin, which is less expensive.

This epidemic presents unique challenges for law enforcement. Instead of targeting drug dealers, law enforcement officials often are confronted with patients in pain and doctors who want to help them. We need to educate both doctors and patients about the addictive nature of prescription drugs, while at the same time preventing people from “doctor shopping” to collect prescriptions for opioids.

We are addressing the problem on several fronts. In Utah, we formed a Strike Force several years ago that is working to reduce the availability of prescription drugs for abuse, and educate the public about the risks associated with prescription painkillers and why they should not be using these drugs for non-medical reasons.

Utah also recently passed a law that requires doctors to take continuing medical education courses on controlled substance prescribing for each licensing period.

One key feature of our campaign to combat prescription drug abuse is our website, This site explains the problems of prescription drug abuse, and how to safely use, store and dispose of prescription drugs.

Utah’s controlled substance monitoring database is now receiving prescription information in real time, to make doctor shopping more difficult for people seeking multiple prescriptions. Ultimately I would like to see the creation of a nationwide electronic prescription database that would do away with paper prescriptions altogether. Such a system would go a long way toward cutting down on prescription drug fraud.

Because our state has already been focused on prescription drug abuse for the past three years, we are ahead of many other states in tackling the problem. But with many drug monitoring databases already or soon to be set up in many states, and National Prescription Drug Take-Back Days collecting hundreds of thousands of pounds of unwanted or expired medications for safe and proper disposal, we are beginning to make progress nationwide.

This fight is costly, and in this difficult economic climate we are competing with many important needs. One way in which I hope Utah can pay for the fight against prescription drug abuse is by setting aside a percentage of settlements made with pharmaceutical companies that we sued for fraud for inflating the cost of prescription drugs sold to the state Medicaid program. I am hoping our Legislature will agree to this plan.

I am optimistic that through a combination of law enforcement and education of health care professionals and the public, we can greatly reduce the terrible toll that prescription drug abuse is taking on our state and our nation.

Mark Shurtleff, Utah Attorney General

8 Responses to this article

  1. Avatar of Ryan
    Ryan / July 2, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    I have mixed feelings about this. I know first hand the pains of opiate pain killer addiction. I have seen withdraws and I have been through them. However, the criminalization of everything in this country compounded by the ever expanding and all seeing big government makes me pause before agreeing that more monitoring is a good solution.

    There are many reasons people maydoctor shop. For example, I was in pain management and hated my doctor b/c I never saw him. I only saw his nurse and they only saw dollar signs by turning over patients. So I wanted a second opinion. Also, beloved it or not I battled with whether I should take pain killers. I would get a refill and throw it away. It’s true. Unfortunately, there’s this unshakable belief that everyone who takes pain killers never questions whether he/she should be taking them in the first place. I did.

    Furthermore, I find it interesting that those who are proponents of the government casting a deep an wide net for monitoring controlled substance prescriptions often justify it by giving examples of tragic cases regrding teenagers who OD’d on such meds. They pain a picture of the person, often young, as a victim of the opiate pills. But the reality is that the script monitoring systems are designed to catch similar people and severely punish them under federal and state law. I don’t like the BS here. Either people on drugs need help or they’re criminals. Which is it? The monitoring system says criminals. However, the lawmaker proponents of such systems use a deceased teenager as a victim of what happens without monitoring. Please. I’ve been in government for years- the military. Monitoring programs are little more than justiications to hire more cops, control more people, prosecute more folks, ruin way more lives than ODs do (since folks who want to use will OD whether they’re caught or not) and impose moral standards on the masses through criminal prosecution that, in today’s federal world of electronic files, never go away thus resulting in an on-going prosecution that never ends.

    In fact, I’m adamantly opposed to monitoring programs unless the law that creates specifically excludes criminal prosecution as a result of the program. In other words, the monitoring programs use by te government should only be accessed by doctors who want to see a patient’s drug RX history. Im a republican, and a lawyer and serve in the Army. I was prior enlisted as well. Opiate addiction, which is what we’re talking about here as “prescription drug abuse” is a hard one to get over. I wa one-in the Army- after a military injury left me to undergo 5 back proceures. However, after all I’ve seen and went through I am convinced that prosecuting such folks is a hideous demonstration of an ominous government who wishes to create even more law enforcement an prisons in order to “create jobs”. I’m sick of it. For every OD, there are 100 folks who can’t get proper pain relief b/c the docs are terrified of being prosecuted by the fed.

    Since when did all my fellow republicans become such huge proponents of huge governments consisting of sprawling law enforcement? Sorry- I’ll pass.

  2. maxwood / June 6, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    The good news behind the bad: Utah stands at or near the top of states which have succeeded in reducing $igarette smoking (I think to under 10% of adult population). So possibly some of these prescription drug victims are persons who otherwise would have destroyed themselves anyway, but even more expensively, numbing away “pain” with daily nicotine overdoses. I agree with Christian, above, more lives might be saved if they were allowed to use cannabis instead of “pHARMa”.

  3. Avatar of ConservativeChristian
    ConservativeChristian / June 6, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Jesus said to do unto others as we would have them to do unto us. None of us would want our child thrown in jail with the sexual predators over marijuana. None of us would want to see an older family member’s home confiscated and sold by the police for growing a couple of marijuana plants for their aches and pains. How about $100 for a permit to grow a dozen plants? Also, check out if you’d like to see some very positive material about Jesus at work in people’s lives

  4. joebanana / June 3, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    The problem with prescription drug abuse also comes from the constant bombardment of drug ads on TV in magazines, billboards, bus benches, newspapers, everywhere. In a country that invented the war on drugs, to allow this blatant drug pushing on the population, while wasting billions of dollars to kill American’s in their own homes, fighting a war on people who don’t agree with harmful, deceitful, groundless policies designed to enrich a few at the cost of many.

  5. Avatar of Trisha DeLozier
    Trisha DeLozier / June 3, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    I commend your efforts. I am a prevention specialist in Oklahoma fighting the same battle in our State. It would be great if every state fighting the battle could have a face to face forum so we could all be fighting the same way. It seems like we are all fighting this fight. Thank you for your hard work in Utah. Trisha DeLozier, CPS

  6. Dina / June 3, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    I was handed a prescription for addiction when ONE doctor gave me 12 NARCOTIC PAINKILLERS over a period of 7 long and horrific years until, one day, I ended up in severe withdrawal, with serious cardiac abnormalities and in a coma… expected to die. A few months prior to this incident, I begged my doctor to help me because I knew that I was addicted and felt as though I was going to die. This doctor laughed at me and told me I was just fine…’not to worry’.
    My survival was a miracle and, today, I am trying to make a difference in people who have been handed a lethal prescription. My advice to those in chronic pain…DEAL WITH IT!

  7. Avatar of lyndsay loos
    lyndsay loos / June 3, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    very aggressive and smart people of Utah. We need you everywhere.

  8. Avatar of LT
    LT / June 30, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    Wrong! I want to see all that happen and more. Lock them up. Take their stuff. Stop feeling sorry for them.

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