DEA Proposes Reclassification of Vicodin, Other Drugs to Stem Supply

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 divided medications and drugs into five separate categories, or “schedules,” based on medical benefit and risk for abuse. Which schedule a substance falls under determines how tightly the government controls its access. The government is almost at cross purposes as the FDA recently made a pure form of Hydrocodone available while the DEA is recommending that mixed forms of the drug be more stringently controlled.

Schedule I drugs are illegal, banned drugs viewed as having no medical benefit and a high risk for abuse. Schedule II drugs have some medical benefit but also carry a high risk for abuse. Examples include morphine, amphetamine, Oxycodone and uncut or pure Hydrocodone. Schedule III have medical benefit and slightly less risk for addiction. At the moment, Hydrocodone that is cut or mixed with another medicine falls within this drug category.

Most of the time Hydrocodone is cut with NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), aspirin or acetaminophen. Examples of this mixture are Vicodin and Lortab. However, an estimated 458 individuals in this country die each year as a result of acetaminophen-induced liver poisoning. Thus, in addition to addiction risk, the drug has medical risks when used in high doses.

The DEA is proposing that Hydrocodone mixed with another medication be moved from Schedule III to II, meaning:

  • Schedule II drugs may not be phoned in to the pharmacy
  • Patients must see their doctor in order to get a handwritten prescription
  • Patients must visit the doctor for each new prescription and cannot be given an automatic refill order
  • Government-imposed quotas control manufacturing of the drug.

Because Schedule II drugs are considered high addiction risk medications the government controls how many of the drugs are manufactured and released into the market. Each year the Attorney General evaluates nation-wide demand alongside current levels of drug inventory and then sets a production quota for that year which cannot be exceeded.

But even as the DEA is making a move to tighten up availability of Hydrocodone, a new and more powerful form of the drug is becoming available. Zohydro is the first Hydrocodone product to be sold in pure form. It will be treated as Schedule II because of its strong potential for addiction, but there has still been a tremendous outcry against it. Some argue that it alleviates the problem of acetaminophen poisoning, others say it is a drug with too many risks.

Meanwhile, the DEA is trying to convince officials that cut Hydrocodone should also be moved to a more tightly controlled spot where less of the drug is made and access to it is harder to come by.

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The Pain of Addiction

Vicodin addiction often starts innocently enough. Most people start taking Vicodin or other pain medications after surgery or an injury. But then they can’t stop. They need more to get the same pain relief. They start doctor shopping to get more pills. And the cycle continues until it takes over their lives.