A survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reveals that as many as 22 million Americans use illegal drugs of one kind or another. “Illegal drugs,” as defined by the survey, includes both controlled substances like cocaine and marijuana and prescription medications used improperly. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued in April indicates that prescription drug abuse has led to a ninety percent increase in poisoning-related deaths among teens aged fifteen to nineteen between 2000 and 2009. Prescription drug abuse is evidently becoming more common, and studies suggest much of it involves legally-obtained medications. In terms of civil liability for medical professionals, the question is not as clear as it is for a medication error.
The CDC reports that 27,000 people died in 2007 from accidental drug overdoses in the United States. The agency also says that deaths due to drug overdose and abuse have overtaken car accidents as a cause of death among teenagers. As much as twenty percent of teens surveyed by the CDC in 2009 said they had taken prescription medications without a prescription. A large number of these may be painkillers, which have a high potential for abuse, fatal drug interactions, or overdoses. Opioid analgesics, which are common active ingredients in painkillers and other drugs, now cause more fatal overdoses than cocaine and heroin combined, according to the CDC.
Although some people who abuse prescription drugs may obtain them illegally, many obtain them directly through a physician’s prescription or from a person with a valid prescription. Doctors and pharmacies must take great care in how they prescribe painkillers and other high-alert drugs. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) recently suspended the licenses of two Florida CVS pharmacies because they allegedly dispensed more units of the painkiller oxycodone than any other pharmacy in the state, thus endangering public safety. According to the DEA, they filled multiple prescriptions for out-of-state patients and dispensed hundreds of thousands of tablets. This allegedly suggests dispensation of painkillers to addicts. Regulators also suspended a Florida distributor’s license to distribute controlled substances for allegedly “selling excessive amounts of oxycodone” to the two CVS stores and other pharmacies. The pharmacies and the distributors face license revocation hearings.