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Prescription Drug Abuse - The Challenge and the Community response - Sept 24, 2012

Submitted By:

James L. Santelle
United States Attorney, Eastern District of Wisconsin

Sometimes lost in the continuing, spirited discussion about our national policy on the enforcement of laws prohibiting the possession and distribution of illegal drugs is the seminal notion that this is and always has been about health care.  The use of substances like heroin, cocaine, marihuana, methamphetamine, and many others compromised the human body and imperils the function of its critical neurological, muscular, and related systems.

 The jeopardy to the physical and mental well-being of our populations nationwide and right here in Wisconsin is posed with equal potency by the abuse of prescription drugs and pharmaceutical substances.  The consequences of medicine abuse, including emergency room episodes, treatment admissions, and overdose deaths, have increased dramatically in recent years, and it is a behavior that is more frequently starting in adolescence.

Consider some of the staggering statistics that reflect only partially the toll that prescription drug abuse is taking on our youth, in addition to our adults:  One in six teens has used a pharmaceutical drug, not prescribed by a doctor, in order to get high or to change his or her mood, and two-thirds of teens who abuse pain relievers say they got them from family or friends.  In fact, prescription medicines are now the most commonly abused drugs among 12- to 13-year-olds, and every day, 2000 teens in our country abuse pharmaceuticals for the first time.

The results are both well-known and shockingly catastrophic:  Drug overdose deaths among 15- to 19-year-olds are up 91% in the past ten years alone, and opioid pain relievers are responsible for more of those than cocaine and heroin combined.  Just as troubling is the fact that one American dies every 19 minutes from a drug overdose in the United States, and this disturbing trend is driven by prescription painkillers.  For the past three years, more of our youth and our adults have perished from those overdose events than in automobile accidents.

And the danger to our individual and collective health is accompanied by a like impact on our health care systems:  Emergency department visits prompted by the misuse or abuse of pharmaceuticals more than doubled between 2004 and 2010, and the non-medical use of prescription painkillers costs health insurers about $72.5 billion annually. 

Throughout Eastern Wisconsin, our partnered federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement authorities continue to identify strategically, investigate aggressively, and prosecute effectively those individuals and institutions responsible for the distribution of illegal drugs and those who promote the non-medical sale and non-prescribed use of pharmaceuticals.  As a critical part of this continuing, focused work, our local office of the Drug Enforcement Administration will be conducting its fifth National Prescription Drug Take Back Day on Saturday, September 29—an opportunity for all citizens to surrender anonymously  their unwanted and expired medicines in a safe and responsible manner.  When the results of the last four Take Back Days are combined, the DEA and its many law enforcement partners collected over 1.5 million pounds—or 774 tons—of prescription drugs.

And because it’s clear that the most successful way for all of us to address our serious pharmaceutical abuse challenge is to prevent illegal drug use in the first place, the United States Department of Justice is teamed beginning this week with the Partnership for a Drug Free America in bringing much-needed attention to this epidemic and educating the public about the dangers of abusing prescription and over-the-counter medicines.  That is the best path toward a time when all Americans, including our next generations, are healthy, thriving, and strong.

Information about collection sites for the DEA’s National Prescription Drug Take Back Day is available at, under the “Got Drugs?” link.  Information about the Partnership’s public awareness campaign is available at

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