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CONTACT: David E. Joranson 608-263-7662 or Linda Dietrich 608-263-6585

Pharmacy theft is an overlooked source
of abused pain medications

MADISON — A research letter published by the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management reports that every year, thousands of armed robberies and thefts from pharmacies, manufacturers and distributors result in millions of dosages of opioid pain medications being diverted into the illicit market. The medications are trafficked by drug dealers and then abused, often in combination with alcohol and other drugs, leading to overdose and death.

"Drug Crime is a Source of Abused Pain Medications in the United States" was written by David E. Joranson, MSSW, and Aaron M. Gilson, PhD, of the Pain & Policy Studies Group at the University of Wisconsin Comprehensive Cancer Center. The letter describes data received from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) under a Freedom of Information Act request. The request was for theft reports of prescription controlled substances that had been submitted to the DEA by DEA registrants on federal Form 106. The information provided contained analyzable data for only 22 Eastern states representing approximately one-half the US population.

In the four-year period from 2000 to 2003, nearly 28 million dosage units of all prescription controlled substances were diverted in 12,894 separate incidents primarily involving pharmacies, and averaging more than 3,000 incidents per year. In 2003, approximately 5.8 million dosages of opioid pain medications were diverted, including hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, methadone, meperidine, hydromorphone and fentanyl.

Diversion of this type occurs at places in the drug supply chain above the level of prescribing, dispensing and patient use, and involves individual and organized criminal activity by persons who are not licensed or registered to handle controlled substances, and therefore would not be detected by programs that monitor prescribing. The taking of controlled substances by force from DEA registrants became a federal felony in 1984; more information is needed about how law enforcement is addressing drug crimes against DEA registrants as a part of the national coordinated response to prescription drug diversion. Addressing pharmacy theft could become a model for achieving hoped-for "balanced" responses to diversion, because these sources of diversion can be identified and addressed with little if any risk of interfering in legitimate medical practice and patient care.

Future studies should examine trends and whether pharmacy thefts occur in particular states and metropolitan or rural areas, evaluate the causes and methods of preventing pharmacy crime, and determine what proportion of total diversion and abuse comes from pharmacy theft or from other sources such as fraudulent prescriptions or "pill mills." Existing national drug abuse databases should collect information on the source of abused drugs to a more evidence-based face on how abused prescription pain relievers are obtained. Joranson DE, Gilson AM. Drug crime is a source of abused pain medications in the United States. J Pain Symptom Manage. 2005; 30(4):299-301. (Available at www.medsch.wisc.edu/painpolicy/publicat/05jpsm/05jpsm.pdf.)

PDF Version of Press Release at: www.medsch.wisc.edu/painpolicy/publicat/05jpsm/press_release.pdf.

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