The biggest drug problem in the United States is not the one we think we have: illegal drugs. It is drugs prescribed by doctors.
On Monday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder focused attention on the sharp rise in heroin deaths, noting that "addiction to heroin and other opiates, including certain prescription pain-killers, is impacting the lives of Americans in every state."
More people die of prescription drug overdoses than from traffic accidents. A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that doctors are key contributors to the crisis of addiction and overdose.
Some of it is irresponsible doctors. Another part of it is doctors resorting to drug prescriptions when alternatives may be better.
Then there are patients who go "doctor shopping" to get prescriptions of painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone.
This study follows a 2012 investigation by the Los Angeles Times, "Dying for Relief," which found a startling phenomenon: Nearly half of the prescription overdoses in Southern California were attributable to doctor's prescriptions, with one doctor alone linked to 16 dead patients.
How to deter prescription drug abuse, which the CDC is calling an epidemic?
After a truck driver who had gotten multiple prescriptions for Vicodin and Flexeril fell asleep and killed his two young children, software entrepreneur Bob Pack pressed California to be the first state to set up a prescription drug database to prevent patients from doctor shopping and doctors from overprescribing.
But the Controlled Substance Utilization, Review and Evaluation System, or CURES, was hamstrung from the beginning by lack of funding for enforcement and resistance from doctors and pharmacists to any requirement to check the database before they write or fill prescriptions. So CURES hasn't been a deterrent.
The Legislature should get a backbone in this session to require doctors to check the database and require the drug industry to contribute to enforcement.
If it doesn't, Pack and the Santa Monica advocacy group, Consumer Watchdog, are proposing a ballot initiative with tough provisions. In addition to requiring doctors and pharmacists to check the database, his measure would require random drug and alcohol testing of doctors.
Going after problem prescribers certainly is a necessary part of a solution. But we Americans have to confront ourselves. We consume 80% of the world's supply of painkillers. The problem is us and our inclination to treat problems with a pill.