The Prescription Drug Abuse and Overdose Crisis: Focus on the Supply Chain

By Scott Burris

There’s so much we still don’t know about the prescription opioid problem. The partial remedies advanced so far reflect this:

  • Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, which in essence define the problem as doctor-shopping patients;
  • treatment guidelines, which define the problem as doctors without expertise; and
  • crackdowns on “pill-mills,” which see the issue as physician corruption. Each of these diagnoses has an element of truth, but not necessarily enough to make the treatments effective.

One huge part of the problem has gotten far too little attention: the pharmaceutical supply chain where all these drugs start and along which they are distributed. Now, John Coleman, a former DEA officer, has given us a thorough and compelling primer on the supply chain, describing it and showing where the pressure points are for action. He is not happy about what he sees: DEA is overwhelmed, and too secretive with its data;  and the distributors are too interested in profits and far too unwilling to police paying customers. But he also sees room for action and even hope. This article is well worth a read if you are interested in the overdose problem and how to solve it:

Coleman, John J. “The Supply Chain of Medicinal Controlled Substances: Addressing the Achilles Heel of Drug Diversion.” Journal of Pain and Palliative Care Pharmacotherapy 26, no. 3 (2012): 233-50.

P.S. — One of the hopeful signs he sees was Florida’s legislation beefing up state-level monitoring and controls. This takes me back to the successful Wisconsin Cancer Pain Initiative in the 70s and 80s, which articulated the Principle of Balance in drug control and demonstrated that it was possible to have good access to pain medicine and effective control. In those days, David Joranson, the state drug controller, worked closely with DEA, using state regulatory authority to shut down docs and pharmacies who were acting outside the law. The possibility of history repeating itself is a ray of sunlight in the cloudy skies of this issue. (If you are interested in the story, here’s one place to start: Joranson, D., and J. L. Dahl. “Achieving Balance in Drug Policy: The Wisconsin Model.” In Advances in Pain Research and Therapy, edited by CS Hill Jr. and WS Fields. 197-204. New York: Raven Press, 1989.)

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