How Will the Rx Epidemic Shape US Drug Policy?

By May Wilkerson 07/17/12

A changing drug landscape is leading, perhaps belatedly, to policy changes in both the US and Mexico.

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America's huge and growing hunger for prescription pills is signaling the need for new drug policy, both in the US and in Mexico. The US has long fought to keep illicit drugs out of the country—running vigorous border patrol efforts, prosecuting traffickers, and backing crackdowns in Latin America. But recent years have seen street drugs like cocaine and heroin overtaken by prescription painkillers as America's drug of choice: in the mid-1980s, a government survey showed 5.8 million people had used cocaine in the past month—that number dropped to 1.5 million in 2008. Abuse of painkillers, in contrast, is on a frightening upswing—with 20,044 overdose deaths documented in 2008—a number that tripled in ten years, and is higher than ODs from all illicit drugs combined. All of which is forcing policy-makers to re-examine long-held strategies. 

"This is an urgent, urgent issue that needs to be addressed promptly,” says Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Many American officials, and even the Drug Enforcement Administration, are coming to believe that border patrol and drug trafficking arrests are no solution for the new problem. “The policies the United States has had for the last 41 years have become irrelevant,” says Morris Panner, a former counter-narcotics prosecutor. “The United States was worried about shipments of cocaine and heroin for years but whether those policies worked or not doesn’t matter because they are now worried about Americans using prescription drugs.” 

In Mexico, a shift in anti-drug efforts is already apparent. President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto is promising to focus less on the interdiction of drugs, and more on reducing the violence that has claimed over 50,000 lives as traffickers battle for power. US officials say they're now allocating more of the anti-drug budget towards helping Mexico build communities, including supporting prevention programs for at-risk youths—whereas in the past, most of the budget was spent on arresting kingpins and seizing drugs. In the US, some measures are being taken to address the prescription drug epidemic. DEA officials say they've recently created 37 “tactical diversion squads” focusing on prescription drug investigations, and will add 26 more in the near future. “Unfortunately,” says Republican Representative Mary Bono Mack, chairwoman of the Congressional Caucus on Prescription Drug Abuse, “it’s because more and more members are hearing from back home in their district that people are dying.”

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.