According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly three out of four prescription drug overdoses involved prescription painkillers—also called opioid pain relievers. In fact, these drugs were involved in 14,800 overdose deaths in 2008, more than cocaine and heroin combined.
This is a challenge that hits some parts of America disproportionately, with states in Appalachia and the Southwest having the highest overall drug overdose death rates in the U.S. In a period of nine months, for instance, a tiny Kentucky county of fewer than 12,000 people saw a 53-year-old mother, her 35-year-old son, and seven others die by overdosing on pain medications obtained from pain clinics in Florida.[i]
The good news is that Federal, State, and local health and safety authorities are working together in unprecedented ways to address this crisis. Moreover, this is a response that transcends party lines, with Republicans and Democrats working together.
Today, we had the privilege to participate in a National Rx Drug Abuse Summit, hosted by Kentucky Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers and Operation UNITE - the organization he launched in 2003 to reduce the impact of the drug problem in his state. At the Summit, we met with leaders from the entire spectrum of civic life – from public health experts, to elected officials, and even students – all of whom understand how vital it is we work together to protect public health and safety.
This Summit served as a reminder to everyone that we can make a substantial impact in saving lives. As always, our approach starts with prevention, which is why we continue to support Drug Free Communities, a Federal grant program that provides funding to community-based coalitions that organize to prevent youth substance use. Just as importantly, we can support other community organizations and initiatives that emphasize the prevention and treatment of drug use: programs like Operation Unite and initiatives like DEA’s Take Back Day and NIDA’s PEERx.
I want to thank the conference organizers, participants and many attendees for the opportunity to discuss this issue and learn from each other. I hope we can all walk away from this experience with a renewed optimism for tackling this challenge head on.
R. Gil Kerlikowske is Director of National Drug Control Policy