Members of Congress are asking why the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) are refusing to put tighter controls on the nation’s second-most abused drug, hydrocodone, a narcotic that has been linked to murders, celebrity overdoses and pharmacy robberies.
Hydrocodone is the key ingredient in dozens of FDA-approved medicines including Vicodin and Lortab. It is an opiate narcotic used to relieve moderate to severe pain or to relieve cough. The drug can also be habit-forming and is life-threatening if overdosed. Overdoses of hydrocodone has contributed to the deaths of actors Heath Ledger, Brittany Murphy, and Corey Haim.
It is a painkiller that is chemically similar and almost as strong as oxycodone, the most abused drug in the country, known by the brand name OxyCotin.
However, hydrocodone is listed as a Schedule III controlled substance. Oxycodone, on the other hand, is a Schedule II drug. The recently banned propoxyphene, known by the brand names Darvocet and Darvon, is also a Schedule II drug. The classification of a drug determines how they are handled and what penalties are carried out if they are abused or illegally sold.
Schedule II drugs must be kept under lock in pharmacies, doctors can only prescribe one bottle at a time, and patients must show an original prescription slip in order to receive the drugs. Penalties for abusers are also steep, with first-time traffickers face up to 20 years in prison.
Comparatively, Schedule III drugs can be refilled up to six times without a doctor’s visit, and doctors can refill by phone or fax. Punishments are also more lenient, with first-time traffickers facing only 10 years in prison.
In 1999, the FDA and DEA began reviewing whether hydrocodone should be re-categorized as a Schedule II drug. Over the past 12 years, as emergency room reports of overdoses have skyrocketed, all the agencies have appeared to be doing is passing documents back and forth with neither taking the lead to tighten control of the drugs.
In March, 58 members of Congress filed a bill that would bypass the DEA and FDA, and strengthen the controls on hydrocodone. Advocates for the tighter controls applaud the government’s push to reclassify hydrocodone. But critics say doing so will only make it harder to get for the people who need the drug to maintain a normal life.