PAINKILLER LAW: When Crime’s All You Look For, You See Too Many Criminals

If you wake up every morning, strap on a badge and gun and go fight the War on Drugs, you come to view the world in a certain way. If your goal for each workday is to go in peace and not come back in pieces, your perspective on society, people, crime and your role in combating evil are invariably shaped by your experience. That’s why it’s a mistake for the DEA to bring its ordinary approach against drug crime to the issue of prescription drug abuse. But that is just what the agency is doing. It is basically treating like a criminal any healthcare professional who shows up on its radar.

At the recent joint conference sponsored by the California Medical Board and Board of Pharmacy, I heard the DEA speak about rampant drug diversion, pharmacists’ widespread complicity in prescription drug abuse, doctors wantonly prescribing outside the standard of care, drug dealers in white coats, and the DEA’s determination to crack down. The problem is, no one can quantify the degree of “complicity” by the nation’s pharmacists, or durably judge when a provider is prescribing outside the standard of care. The DEA says it’s happening, and its agents are the ones with the guns, and so, well, it must be happening.

The sense of things that I had coming into the conference was unfortunately not at all changed by what I heard there. The DEA’s talk was dominated by war stories of pharmaceutical distributors selling Oxy out the back door, of pharmacists ordering more than they need and keeping lousy records of where it all went, of doctors making megabucks writing scrips for no reason, and patients visiting websites devoted to the celebration of hallucinogens. Seriously, that’s what the speaker talked about. That’s clearly not the entire scope of the issue, and those characterizations don’t fairly define all medical providers or pharmacists or patients. None the less, the DEA is bringing its habitual mindset to a new class of cases and investigations – and a new “target” population – and that’s the wrong approach.

Clearly, the DEA is in reaction mode, just as Medical Boards nationwide are, and it’s being blamed for missing the early signs of what became a prescription drug abuse crisis. In reaction to the blame, the DEA is redirecting the pressure onto doctors, pharmacists and others who the DEA thinks are responsible for whatever the agency is supposed to be trying to stop. And what exactly is to be stopped? Who should decide whether a patient needs the drugs he or she is given: The prescriber, or the federal agent? If a doctor prescribes a lot of pills to a lot of patients, does it mean he or she is operating a pill mill? If a pharmacist fills prescriptions, is the pharmacist automatically part of the problem? And if the meaning of “outside the standard of care” can’t even be succinctly articulated in the law, how are law enforcement agents to know where the line is, BEFORE they decide a practitioner or pharmacist is dirty?

These are the questions all of us must vigilantly continue asking, persistently and if need be peskily, in this latest iteration of the War on Drugs. There is no easy answer, no matter what the DEA might think.

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