New York State toughens law on hydrocodone prescription

Photo by Flickr user Jeff Adams; published under Creative Commons license.

A new state law intended to combat illegal recreational use of hydrocodone, a highly addictive opiate that is the main ingredient in Vicodin and other prescription painkillers, went into effect this week.

The law reclassifies hydrocodone from a Schedule III to a Schedule II drug, tightening restrictions on prescribing the drug and banning automatic refills. It also establishes a new statewide online database for doctors and pharmacists to report and track controlled narcotics, dubbed the Internet System for Tracking Overprescribing, or I-STOP.

Other opiates with high addictive potential, like oxycodone, have been on the Schedule II list for some time. Many public health advocates have argued that hydrocodone deserves to be regulated more strictly, citing the drug's widespread abuse, addictive nature and the frequency of hydrocodone-related deaths. 

At the federal level, hydrocodone is still a Schedule III drug. So far, the Food and Drug Administration has resisted efforts by the Drug Enforcement Administration to move the drug to the more strictly-regulated federal Schedule II list.

In an open letter to New York State doctors, state attorney general Eric Schneiderman announced Wednesday that the law is now in effect, and lays out the case for stricter regulation:

Prescription drug abuse is the country’s second most prevalent illegal drug problem, and recent reports and studies have documented corresponding data in the state. According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, Hydrocodone is among a group of opioid drugs that contributes to 3 out of 4 medication overdose deaths. The report also noted that drug overdose deaths rose for the 11th straight year, and the majority of those deaths were accidents involving addictive painkillers.

Statewide prescriptions for hydrocodone filled increased from 3.8 million to 4.5 million from 2007 to 2009, an increase of 18.4 percent, while those for oxycodone have increased an astonishing 82 percent. In many regions of the state hydrocodone is the most commonly prescribed controlled substance:

Locally, abuse of prescription drugs has reached epidemic levels. In a recent special report for WBNG-TV in Binghamton, Dave Greber reports that prescription drug abuse is fueling a crime wave in rural Delaware County:

A gritty, oftentimes dangerous undercurrent runs through the quiet towns and serene countryside of Delaware County, and it's costing resources and constant attention of law enforcement, who teeter daily on winning and losing the battle. 

But they are battling.

"We're doing everything we can do. We're working night and day," said Delaware County Undersheriff Craig DuMond. "It's a prolific problem. It's something like we haven't seen. I'm a fourth-generation Delaware County resident, and I've never seen problems such as these."

The drug of choice is prescription, like the lucrative Oxycontin or Oxycodone, or an addiction rooted in it, like the cheaply made and sold heroin.

What began as occasional small-time crime for mostly small-town cops and deputies, has grown into a daily drug-fed routine for a law enforcement community that's been forced to grow increasingly sophisticated.

In the nearby Ulster County town of Woodstock, small-town doctor Wayne Longmore recently pled guilty to dispensing thousands of prescriptions for hydrocodone without a medical purpose in 2011 and 2012. According to FBI investigators, at the height of Longmore's illegal overprescription activity, his tiny Mill Hill Road clinic wrote more prescriptions for the drug than many area hospitals.

Below: Video of a special report on Delaware County prescription drug crime from WBNG that aired this week.