Opioid Addiction Epidemic Raises Questions About Drug Treatment vs. Drug Law Enforcement

Rates of opioid addiction and of deaths resulting from accidental overdoses have increased substantially in many parts of the country. The statistics suggest that it has not reached “epidemic” levels in Texas, but it is still a vitally important issue. The government, at the state, local, and federal levels, must balance the enforcement of drug laws and the promotion of addiction treatment. The impact of this balancing act varies significantly from one location to another and over time in any single location. Texas continues to pursue enforcement quite aggressively but is also committing resources toward treatment. At the federal level, a recent executive order from the White House establishes a commission to study federal drug enforcement efforts, but it indicates no drastic change in policy. Meanwhile, the government’s rules regarding opioids, in a purported effort to combat the rising addiction and overdose rate, may be harming patients dealing with chronic pain.

Hydrocodone-paracetamol-5-500The term “opioid” can refer broadly to drugs derived from the opium plant, such as morphine, and synthetic drugs that produce similar effects, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. Opioids are commonly prescribed for pain relief after injuries and surgeries, as well as in longer-term pain-management regimens. Most opioids are classified as Schedule II controlled substances. Like Schedule I substances, they have “a high potential for abuse,” but Congress and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have determined that Schedule II substances have some “currently accepted medical use.” 21 U.S.C. § 812(b). The opioids mentioned above, such as morphine and oxycodone, are classified in Schedule II, along with codeine and others. 21 C.F.R. § 1308.12(b)(1).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 33,000 people died in 2015 due, in some part, to opioids. The number of annual overdoses has reportedly quadrupled since 1999. The state with the highest death rate from overdoses in 2015 was West Virginia, with 41.5 per 100,000 people. The rate in Texas was much lower and actually decreased by over three percent from the previous year. New CDC guidelines issued in 2016, in cooperation with the DEA, prioritize non-opioid therapies. These guidelines are not mandatory for physicians, but they have reportedly led to a significant decrease in prescriptions for pain patients, perhaps by creating apparent incentives for doctors to avoid prescribing opioids whenever they can.

Many jurisdictions have established programs to promote treatment for alleged drug offenders. Research suggests that treatment costs less than prosecution and punishment in the long run, both in financial terms and in regard to public safety. Drug courts, which offer diversion programs for defendants charged with relatively minor drug-related offenses, are growing in popularity around the country. In Seattle, Washington, for example, a program that diverts repeat drug offenders from the courts to social workers has reportedly been highly successful.

Despite many positive trends, different laws and regulations in different states lead to varying levels of access to treatment and of interest in promoting treatment within the criminal justice system. Some jurisdictions continue to prioritize enforcement. Laws intended to help drug addicts can have unintended consequences. Even in states that encourage treatment, affording treatment is often another matter altogether.

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

Michael J. Brown, a board-certified drug crime attorney, has defended people against alleged state and federal charges in West Texas courts for over 20 years. Contact us online or at (432) 687-5157 today to schedule a confidential consultation with a skilled and experienced criminal justice advocate.

More Blog Posts:

Accidental Overdose Could Lead to Much More than Drug-Related Charges in Some States, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, January 25, 2017

Lawsuits Challenge Police Use of Field Drug Testing Kits, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, January 25, 2017

Appellate Court Decision Addresses Conflict Between Federal and State Medical Marijuana Laws, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, January 25, 2017

Photo credit: Elbreapoly (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.