Criminal Law

When Meds Become Prescription for Prison

Abuse of prescription painkillers is a public health epidemic. In 2011, more people died from prescription painkiller overdoses than from heroin, cocaine and all other drugs combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nationwide, opioids lead to 15,000 deaths and 500,000 emergency room visits each year. They have surpassed traffic accidents as the single largest cause of accidental death in the United States. Chief among these drugs are the pain relievers oxycodone, hydrocodone and oxymorphone.

A Legitimate Tool

Because of concerns over safety and addictiveness, opioids were at one time prescribed mainly for cancer patients or the terminally ill. Today, many doctors view them as an essential tool for the management of chronic pain. Opioids are of great value to many patients who are recovering from surgery, who suffer terrible injuries or who are subject to serious chronic pain.

About 8.8 people in the United States are on chronic opioid therapy.

Unfortunately, the drugs are also addictive and highly prized on the black market. Studies show that opioid addicts comprise a surprisingly broad cross-section of the population: the elderly, the middle-aged and, increasingly, young adults. Many are wounded veterans.

The Line Becomes Blurred

When it comes to prescription painkillers, the line between legal and illegal drug use is unclear. Drugs are prescribed, and sit in your medicine cabinet. Patients get addicted and go to doctors to get more. Family members and others help themselves to this “stash” to get high, and then get addicted. Once hooked, and once medical suppliers have been exhausted, addicts buy pain pills on the street.

Some pain clinics, known as “pill mills,” employ doctors who write narcotics prescriptions after only a superficial examination. These are a real problem in a number of states, including Florida and Ohio. Dealers can then sell pain pills on the street for more than 10 times their pharmacy price.

The Government Cracks Down

To deal with this public health epidemic, federal and state governments have cracked down on painkiller abuse. Prescription-drug abuse declined in 2011 to the lowest rate since 2002, but remains a serious problem. Today, 1.7 percent of people use painkillers for non-medical reasons.

The federal government is putting increasing pressure on distributors, which act as middlemen between drug makers and the pharmacies and doctors that dispense painkillers. The drug distribution system includes about 800 companies.

Laws Vary by State

Several states make doctors criminally liable and revoke their licenses for writing prescriptions for painkillers that end up on the street or lead to overdoses. Some have enacted laws restricting pain-clinic ownership to medical professionals. Some have created computerized registries of patients and controlled-substance prescriptions. Finally, some states require pharmacies to curb their supplies and restrict dispensing of painkillers. Check the laws in your own state.

Government crackdowns make things especially difficult for individuals with legitimate needs and prescriptions.

A Lawyer Can Help

The law surrounding use and abuse of prescription painkillers can be complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a lawyer on

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