Getting Tough on Vicodin and Norco

In response to the ever-present prescription drug epidemic in the United States, officials are cracking down on the regulations of hydrocodone-combination products.

The federal government has been advancing policy toward tighter restrictions on hydrocodone products for years. The final step in this process happened on August 21, when the Drug Enforcement Agency moved to change hydrocodone-combination products (HCPs) to a stricter drug schedule. Hydrocodone is already a Schedule II drug, but this policy will raise drugs that include hydrocodone (most of these also have acetaminophen as an ingredient) from Schedule III to Schedule II as well.

The Controlled Substance Act of 1971 set in motion determination for which drugs are most dangerous and have the highest potential for abuse, based on a 1-4 scale. Schedule I drugs carry the highest restrictions and punishments for abuse.

Dangers of Hydrocodone Drugs

“There have been large numbers of deaths and emergency department visits associated with abuse of HCPs,” the agency said in a final rule to be published Friday. “Based on these considerations, the DEA believes that the high abuse and dependence potential and harm associated with HCPs support rescheduling into schedule II of the CSA.”

The DEA’s decision to make hydrocodone products more difficult to get was based on the rampant abuse potential of these drugs. Hydrocodone is the most commonly prescribed painkiller in the United States. Prescription drug abuse overall is responsible for more than 20,000 American deaths every year, and prescription opioids are the most common substance involved in drug-related medical emergencies.

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What the New Schedule Means

Shifting HCPs to Schedule II means sweeping changes in how the drugs are handled and obtained. Some of the changes include:

  • Doctors will no longer be able to call in prescriptions by phone
  • Patients won’t be able to refill their prescription, but must see a doctor to get a new one
  • The drugs will have to be kept in special vaults in pharmacies

This crackdown is one of the most extensive efforts by the government in the battle against prescription drug addiction. Those who oppose the regulation say patients in legitimate need of painkillers will have to jump through more hoops to get access to the drug, but supporters hold to the belief that the good will far outweigh any negatives.

“This will be an inconvenience to some, but policy is a machete, not a scalpel, and you have to figure out where to use it,” said Dr. Nathaniel Katz, assistant professor of anesthesia at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. “I think people will be more helped than harmed.”

Fighting the War on Prescriptions

Since the 1990s, the number of Americans who die from prescription drug overdoses has more than tripled. New regulations aim to cut down the ease with which people can get these powerful drugs, which will hopefully curb the amount of new addictions that develop. As with any battle within the war on drugs, the fight against prescription painkillers will be hard-won — but well worth the effort.

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