The War on Drugs has Failed

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on October 26, 2015

Let's face it: The War on Drugs has Failed.

For decades the government has spent untold billions or trillions of dollars on law enforcement and mass incarceration of people who are only destroying their own lives.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think people should be using PCP, cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy or any other currently illegal or controlled-substance for "recreational" purposes. You'll ruin your life that way. You'll cause untold anguish to people who love you.

Drug abuse can also encourage bad behavior: theft, robbery, fraud. All of which are and should continue to be illegal.

But screwing up your own life shouldn't be illegal in a free country.

I admit I've come to this position recently, and out of a certain amount of self-interest.

Nearly a decade ago, I had my first bout with sciatica. One Sunday night I began to feel some pain and numbness down my left leg. I went to the hospital emergency room and they prescribed me some muscle relaxants and told me to take some aspirin. I didn't sleep well that night, or much at all.

By Monday morning, the pain was intense. I got an appointment with my regular doctor first thing in the morning and I sat in the exam room waiting for him, leaning sideways (unconsciously keeping my weight off my sciatic nerve) and sweating like I'd just run a marathon through Death Valley in August. The doctor gave me the diagnosis and did, what appears in retrospect to be a very brave thing: he prescribed me more muscle relaxants and Vicodin.

There was a drug store immediately adjacent to the doctor's office in the strip mall, but I couldn't remain seated (or standing) the 20-30 minutes it would take to get the prescription filled.

I drove the 5 minutes home in two parts. After about 2 miles, I pulled to the side of the road, put my hazard lights on and reclined my seat so I was horizontal. I called my mother on my cell phone and had her make the 45 minute drive up to my condo to pick up the prescription at the drug store. Ten minutes later, the pain had subsided enough so I could make the rest of my journey home.

I was bedridden for a week and a half. The Vicodin didn't make me loopy or drowsy or any of the other listed potential side effects. It made the pain bearable. It allowed me to get several hours of sleep at a time.


Two weeks later, I went to a San Diego State men's basketball game with my father. We took the trolley. From the trolley station to the arena is about 300 yards. It took me better than 30 minutes and two or three stops on conveniently located benches to make it into the arena. The trip back was similarly time-consuming.

A few years ago, I had a second, less serious bout with sciatica. I recognized the symptoms early and with physical therapy and drugs, I was over it much quicker. However, this time my new doctor wouldn't prescribe me Vicodin. To get Vicodin, I'd have to go to a pain specialist and then, maybe, that doctor would prescribe me the pain killer. Of course, getting an appointment with the pain specialist would take a couple of weeks, and by that time...well, it'd likely be useless.

Luckily, for the worst moments, I still had some Vicodin pills left over from my earlier bout and they were still potent enough to allow me a good night's sleep now and then.

Why all the hoops to get Vicodin the second time around? Well, it's an opioid and is tightly controlled by the FDA. Doctors who are perceived as loose with prescribing the drug get the feds on their case and it's only getting worse.

Healthcare industry groups are launching a preemptive strike against soon-to-drop federal guidelines meant to tamp down on the prescription of powerful painkillers.

The forthcoming guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are meant to combat the abuse of drugs like Hyrdocodone, Oxycontin and Percocet, which many medical experts believe are dangerously overprescribed.

Prescriptions for the drugs, known as opioids, increased by 300 percent from 1999 to 2013, according to the CDC, which cites statistics showing 16,000 people died from overdoses during that time.

As currently drafted, the guidelines recommend physicians use opioids as a last resort after non-pharmacologic therapies like exercise and a lower level pain reliever like Ibuprofen have been tried, according to a copy obtained by The Hill. They do not, however, pertain to treatments for end-of-life care.

What appears to be happening now will make it even more difficult in the future to get painkillers prescribed no matter what your situation.

Bob Twillman, the group’s executive director, said some of CDC’s experts are members of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), a group that advocates for more cautious opioid use.

“I don’t mind if people against opioids help draft the guidelines, but there needs to be a balanced representation of those against them and those that use them on a daily basis to treat patients,” he said. “They are dangerous, but it’s also true that there are many people who benefit from them and couldn’t live their lives if they didn’t have them, including many people with cancer.”

PROP, however, said its board members were asked to be part of the expert panel because they are experts in opioid use.

“The story here is how the opioid lobby is using the Cancer Action Network to discredit a public health effort to limit opioid prescribing,” Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the group’s executive director said.

What's the "public health" benefit to limiting opioid prescriptions other than a serious case of do-gooder intentions gone wrong? (For the record, you should definitely always doubt the motives of any group for "Responsible" anything.)

From a public health standpoint, (Dr. Daniel) Clauw said the federal government needs to do something, but it should be careful in taking a one-size-fits-all approach.

Do-something. This is something. So do it. This is always bad public policy.

Painkillers should be available over the counter, regardless of how well they actually work. Doctors shouldn't have to worry about some government bureaucrat second-guessing their medical opinion.

The left screams bloody murder when you pass a law requiring women to be shown an ultrasound before an abortion as a gross invasion of the doctor-patient relationship, but taking away a doctor's license to practice medicine over some pain drugs is totally okay, because public health.

The War on Drugs has failed. It's taken too many lives and it continues to cause more misery than it has ever hoped to alleviate. It's time to end it.


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October 2015



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