Many Patients End Up Hooked on Doctor-Prescribed Painkillers
Timothy Penny was an athletic 33-year-old when he started taking
prescription pain pills in 1998. He couldn't seem to shake a deep, stabbing
pain in his back, hip and leg after a nasty fall at his job in Escondido.
Twenty-three miles away, in her University City home, Jane Kellogg was
using prescription drugs to ease her depression, blunt her chronic
pain, stop her cough and help her sleep.
In El Cajon, Julie Thomas was swallowing Vicodin and other
prescription drugs to blunt her migraines and dull the pain that had
spread through her bones.
By the end of 2002, Penny, Kellogg and Thomas were
According to the county Medical Examiner's Office, they died from
accidental overdoses of prescription drugs, making them part of what
federal officials say is a disturbing shift in the nation's drug abuse
Deaths involving prescription drugs are increasing while deaths linked
to "dirty drugs" such as heroin and cocaine are decreasing in many
parts of the country, including San Diego County.
Some of the dead are recreational drug users who simply added legal
painkillers or antidepressants to their stash of illegal drugs.
But a growing number are people who accidentally became hooked on
drugs prescribed by their doctors for medical reasons.
"People are quietly dying in their bed almost every day, and it draws
no attention," said San Diego police Detective Kevin Barnard, who for
two years specialized in prescription drug cases. "The focus is on the
cocaine dealer. We overlook the average person who has an addiction."
The problem is clouded by a lack of comprehensive nationwide
statistics to define the scope and impact of prescription drug abuse.
The best indicator may be a federal study released this month, showing
that in 2003 more tha
n 31 million Americans admitted having used
prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons at some point in their
lives, an increase of 1.6 million in one year.
Another government study released this year, which looked at
drug-related deaths in hospital emergency rooms in 25 cities, showed
an uptick in deaths linked to prescription drugs in more than half the
cities surveyed between 2002 and 2003.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which released both
reports, acknowledged the emergency room study didn't include all the
accidental prescription drug deaths, so those numbers could be far
Even so, that report showed drug-related deaths in San Diego County
were higher in 2002 than any year since 1998, an increase caused by
prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications. Deaths from
illegal drugs decreased that year.
"Medical professionals have been caught off guard by the magnitude of
the problem," said H. Westley Clark, head of Substance Abuse Services
for the Department of Health and Human Services.
Based on the available information, Clark estimates thousands have
died from legal drugs and that millions more have become addicted.
John Walters, director of the White House Office of Drug Control
Policy, said prescription drug abuse is being taken so seriously that
for the first time the White House has set aside money - more than
$100 million - specifically for prescription drug education in the
next fiscal year. The White House will spend $178 million on illegal
drug abuse education during that period.
"The power and the risk of death (from prescription drugs) pose a
different kind of problem than we have seen," Walters said.
The pill problem took center stage on Capitol Hill Thursday when the U.S.
Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee met to begin
searching for new ways to monitor prescription drugs.
"Over the past 10 years the abuse and diversion of prescription drugs
has grown from a regional crisis to a national epidemic," said Sen.
Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who chaired the hearing.
Most worrisome are two popular painkillers:
Hydrocodone, the primary ingredient in Vicodin, Lortab and more than
200 other brands, is prescribed for mild to moderate pain.
Oxycodone, often sold as OxyContin, is usually prescribed for severe,
chronic pain, such as that associated with cancer.
Between 1998 and 2000, the number of new prescriptions written
annually for hydrocodone-based medications alone rose to more than 89
million from 56 million, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration. Hydrocodone is now the nation's most abused
In 2002, San Diego was among the top five cities in the number of
deaths linked to hydrocodone, ahead of Dallas and behind Detroit, New
Orleans and Las Vegas, according to the Department of Health and Human
Services' emergency-room study.
Hydrocodone and oxycodone give addicts a euphoric high, especially if
the pills are crushed before they are swallowed.
Antidepressants such as Paxil, Zoloft and Celexa also are of concern
to authorities but have not been linked to as many deaths.
From Walters' office two blocks from the White House to the streets of
San Diego come stories of lives altered by prescription drug abuse.
In June, Vice President Dick Cheney dismissed his personal physician,
Dr. Gary Malakoff, in June after it was disclosed he had abused
Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh temporarily left his
show last year after he acknowledged his addiction to painkillers.
Limbaugh said his doctor originally prescribed the pills for back pain
in the mid-1990s.
President Bush's niece, Noelle Bush, was arrested in 2002 trying to
pass a fake prescription for the anti-anxiety drug Xanax. She recently
completed a court-ordered rehabilitation program.
Less-publicized stories are recorded every week in San
Mira Mesa produce supplier Sal Moceri has been arrested three times
for illegally buying prescription painkillers. Like Limbaugh, Moceri
said he was originally given the pills for a back injury.
Over the years, Moceri's habit grew to 60 Vicodin tablets a day, a
dose that addiction experts say is not extraordinary for someone who
has developed a tolerance after long-term abuse.
"The addiction controls your life," said Moceri, who says he has been
clean since his last arrest in 2002. "You are not your own person.
You're an addict. That's who you are."
The Justice Department's inspector general, Glenn A. Fine, said more
resources are needed to fight prescription drug abuse, which he
describes as equal to cocaine abuse, or worse.
Fine uses numbers from the Justice Department's recent reports on
prescription drug abuse to Congress to tell the story:
In 2002, an estimated 6.2 million Americans abused legal narcotic
painkillers, while 4.1 million Americans used cocaine.
The misuse of painkillers now accounts for 30 percent of
emergency-room visits, a number that has increased steadily over the
"We do not believe people should be living their lives in pain, but we
think medical practices have to be safe and effective," said Clark of
Health and Human Services. "The balance between appropriate pain
intervention and maintaining legitimate therapeutic need - that's the
Mary Staley's back pain began in the 1990s, soon after doctors started
rethinking ways to treat pain.
For decades, doctors had hesitated to prescribe opiate-based
medications such as morphine and codeine to anyone who wasn't
terminally ill because of the potential for addiction. They also
feared being unfairly scrutinized by federal and state regulators, who
monitor opiate prescriptions.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, physicians began debating this
philosophy. Why, many wondered, should people suffer from chronic pain
when so many new drugs were available to help them?
"There was a culture change of sorts in the U.S.," said Dr. Russell K.
Portenoy, chairman of the Department of Pain Medicine and Palliative
Care at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.
Prescribing drugs for daily pain management "became widely accepted,"
Portenoy said. "Then Purdue released OxyContin and it took off."
In 1996, Purdue Pharma, the Stamford, Conn., company that developed
OxyContin, began an aggressive campaign to promote the drug, which was
newly approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The drug was
hailed as a major breakthrough because it allowed patients suffering from
chronic pain to receive 12 hours of medication from a single tablet.
The company held pain-management seminars for physicians and sent
samples directly to their offices. A promotional video, "I Got My Life
Back," was mailed to 14,000 physicians nationwide.
Purdue Pharma also sent letters to the FDA predicting the pill would
change the nature of fighting pain.
In a December 2003 Government Accountability Office report to federal
lawmakers, the FDA described Purdue Pharma's marketing of OxyContin as
Thousands of miles from Purdue's base in Connecticut, in a mobile-home
park in Chula Vista, Mary and Oscar Staley were trying to ease Mary's
Mary Staley had fallen on a sidewalk in the 1990s, just days before
she retired from her job as a supervisor at the Marine Corps Recruit
Depot San Diego. Over time, the pain in her leg intensified. Oscar
Staley said he finally sent her to a pain specialist, who kept
adjusting her medications.
Eventually Purdue's revolutionary OxyContin was added to her lengthy
prescription list, which included Vicodin, a hydrocodone-based painkiller.
Oscar Staley said his wife knew the drugs could become addictive but
was willing to take the risk to get rid of her pain. Eventually, she
was taking 20 pills a day.
On April 26, 2002, Oscar Staley found his 51-year-old wife dead in
bed. The medical examiner's report blamed her death on an accidental
overdose of at least five medications, including hydrocodone and oxycodone.
Her death had to do "with the damn drugs," Oscar Staley said. "The
body can only take so much."
Staley still doesn't consider his wife a drug addict. She was a pain
patient, he said.
A year after Mary Staley's death, the Journal of Analytical Toxicology
reported 919 deaths related to OxyContin between 2000 and 2003 in the
Portenoy, the Beth Israel Medical Center pain specialist, was among
those who had pushed for the use of opiate-based drugs such as
hydrocodone and oxycodone to combat pain in people who weren't near
death. In a recent interview, he acknowledged that his early
assumption that the drugs posed a relatively low risk of abuse was
"There was no discussion about the assessment of abuse and diversion"
of the drugs, Portenoy said. "We have this terrible thing happening
with OxyContin and hydrocodone, and the tragic deaths of people and
"I am a little embarrassed how the risk of abuse was not
Pain control advocates cite studies showing that relatively few
patients who receive opioids, or opiate-like biochemicals, actually
The National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine reported
addiction in patients receiving opioids for pain ranged from 1 in
1,000 to less than 1 in 10,000 in 1999, the latest estimates available.
"Unfortunately, many politicians, law enforcement officials,
journalists, pain patients and practitioners ... continue to labor
under the misperception that prolonged use of OxyContin or any other
opioids to treat moderate and severe chronic pain is likely to lead to
addiction," said representatives of the National Foundation for the
Treatment of Pain, the Drug Policy Alliance and other groups in a
brief filed in an Ohio court case.
Experts offer a variety of theories about why people become
Some doctors don't give enough warnings. Some patients don't pay
attention to the warnings. And some people have a genetic inclination
to become addicted.
The problem is compounded by the absence of a workable tracking system
to find patients who go from doctor to doctor until they find one
willing to prescribe what they want, or who learn how to draw
prescriptions off the Internet.
Until recently, doctors received little formal instruction in pain
management. It was assumed they would understand how to ease a
patient's suffering without special training.
Paths to Addiction
Timothy Penny was working as a nursing home administrator when he hurt
his leg in 1998. Penny, who lived in Vista, was an athletic man who
enjoyed scuba diving. He assumed his leg would heal quickly.
The pain persisted, and his doctors prescribed morphine, hydrocodone
and other potent drugs.
"It was a classic spiral into drug addiction," said Penny's aunt,
Kathy Frazier, who as a nurse had seen people with her nephew's
symptoms time and again.
"He became more and more dependent over a period of time, but he
didn't want to admit he was hooked. When we'd try to say something
about it, he'd just say no, no, no."
Penny's mother, Lael Danto, said her son never saw himself as an
addict because he never drank or abused illegal drugs. He died in his
bed in January 2002 of toxic levels of methadone and
Some patients' pain is so severe that they continue using the
medication despite clear signs of addiction.
Jane Kellogg had a history of abusing prescription drugs and alcohol
because of chronic pain and depression, according to medical
examiner's reports. That toxic mix, combined with high blood pressure
and heart disease, killed the 71-year-old Kellogg, who died alone in
her apartment in October 2002. Painkillers and antidepressants were
found in her body, medical examiners said.
Julie Thomas, 33, originally took Vicodin to
blunt pain caused by migraines and by fibromyalgia, a chronic illness
characterized by widespread aches, pain and stiffness.
But Thomas' growing addiction to the pills became the source of more
suffering. Her liver had become irritated by the medication, according
to the medical examiner's reports, and doctors prescribed methadone to
slow the liver damage. Only days before her death, Thomas told
relatives she felt great on the methadone and that there was so much
she wanted to accomplish in life.
On Valentine's Day 2002, Thomas' husband found her dead in their
bedroom. The medical examiner's report said she died of an accidental
mix of prescription drugs and alcohol.
Neither Thomas' family nor Kellogg's family wanted to discuss the
circumstances that led to their loved ones' deaths.
Veteran police officers such as Barnard, the San Diego detective,
worry about the broader ramifications of prescription drug abuse by
seemingly ordinary people.
"It can be anyone," he said. "There's no cool ZIP code or social
status that makes you immune to addiction."
Think of the patients who could be harmed by a drug-addicted doctor,
Barnard said. Think of the passengers a drug-addicted bus driver puts
at risk. Or the students whose education is affected by a
"How would you like to fly on a plane with a pilot whacked on some
prescription painkiller?" Barnard said.
In May, Barnard was taken off the San Diego Regional Pharmaceutical
Narcotic Enforcement Team and reassigned for budget reasons to
investigate petty thefts and burglaries.
Currently, six law enforcement officers in San Diego County are
assigned to the pharmaceutical task force. By contrast, about 300
state, federal and local law enforcement officers in the county
investigate illegal drug cases as their primary job.
The pharmaceutical task force targets people who fraudulently use
prescriptions to feed their addictions. Most are not hardened criminals.
"Usually when we show up, it's the first time they've ever had contact
with a police officer," said state Department of Justice agent Sara
Simpson, the task force supervisor. "They're busted and they're scared."
So it was no surprise that a man task force agents arrested at a
Pacific Beach pharmacy in May turned out to be a 42-year-old
contractor with a successful business.
In the man's neatly organized truck, a task force agent found dozens
of bottles of painkillers, as well as a flow chart the contractor had
assembled to list the aliases he used and the dates he visited
The contractor said he had started using the pills a few years
earlier, when he was given painkillers after hurting his back on the
"It can dominate their lives," John Woo, a special agent with the
California Department of Justice's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement,
said as he placed the pill bottles in evidence bags.
A month later, the task force handcuffed a 54-year-old woman trying to
use a forged prescription at a North Park pharmacy.
She turned out to be an X-ray technician and former registered
"You'd think if anybody would know the dangers, somebody with a
medical background would," said task force special agent Holly Swartz.
People arrested by the task force are usually sent to Drug Court, a
yearlong program operated by the county that requires them to go
through testing, counseling and rehabilitation. Those who don't
complete the program can be sent to jail.
Not everybody lives long enough to get caught.
Donna Barron ended up in the San Diego County morgue a day before task
force agents knocked at her City Heights door.
Agents had started tracking the 45-year-old Barron several weeks
earlier, after pharmacists from the Department of Veterans Affairs
gave them a tip that she had been passing forged prescriptions for
The agents went from pharmacy to pharmacy confirming Barron's identity
and piecing together the extent of her drug use. But when they went to
her home to confront her in November, her husband told them she had
died the day before.
Barron's husband, who couldn't be located for an interview, was with
her when she collapsed. According to the medical examiner's report, he
cautiously speculated that his wife might have taken too many pills.
An autopsy showed that Barron had so much of the mood elevator
Venlafaxine in her system that it could have caused her heart to stop
"It makes you think what might have happened if we'd have been there a
day sooner," Simpson said. "Could she have been helped?"
Background: Since the early 1990s, doctors have increasingly relieved the
chronic pain of some patients by prescribing drugs that, while highly
effective, are potentially addictive.
Side effects: Many people have benefited, but a growing number are becoming
addicted to painkilling drugs their doctors prescribed - sometimes with
What's next: Authorities are now considering tighter restrictions on these
drugs even though patients advocates say they are desparately needed by
those living with pain.
Today: Patients become addicts
Monday: Why some doctors over-prescribe
Tuesday: The controversy over tighter controls