NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

PARTY OF PAIN

February 6, 2006

A new Supreme Court ruling says that the federal drug law does not empower the attorney general to define general standards of medical practice; instead, it merely bars doctors from using their prescription-writing powers as a means to engage in illicit drug dealing and trafficking as conventionally understood, says John Tierney of the New York Times.

That's news to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and federal prosecutors, who have gone way beyond any "conventionally understood" idea of drug trafficking; in fact, they have been prosecuting doctors for prescribing opioid painkillers, like OxyContin, even where there's no evidence of any of the drugs being resold on the streets, says Tierney:

  • These drug warriors are not troubled by the enormous range in the level of pain medication that different patients needs, nor do they worry about the potency of the pills, just the number.
  • DEA officials claim that only 0.1 percent of the 600,000 doctors in America were investigated, but that is a modest estimate.
  • The doctors who matter are the small number of specialists in pain treatment who prescribe opioids; nearly 17 percent of those doctors were investigated during one year by DEA, and an even greater number of others were investigated by local and state authorities.

Faced with those odds, doctors are understandably afraid, says Tierney:

  • DEA has made doctors reluctant to give opioids to desperately ill patients, even when these drugs are the most effective pain treatment.
  • The Supreme Court ruling, though a victory for the Bush administration, could cause doctors across the country to abandon patients and their families in their moment of greatest need.

Source: John Tierney, "Party of Pain," New York Times, January 21, 2006.

 

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