New deadly drug threat requires state’s quick action

The Herald-Dispatch editorial

The story is well-known how billions of powerful prescription pain pills such as hydrocodone and oxycodone were shipped to the Appalachian region over the last decade-plus, with a high percentage of those diverted for non-medical uses.

And we’re familiar with the following chapters, too. As authorities cracked down on “pill mills” and the street price of those drugs rose, more and more people turned to heroin. And it didn’t stop there. Now we’re hearing more and more about how heroin increasingly is being laced with even more potent drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanil.

It seems there are an increasing number of ways people put themselves at risk. The tragic result is thousands of overdose deaths in West Virginia over the past several years, not to mention the countless number of overdoses that take place.

Now, officials in West Virginia are discovering yet another threat that’s been added to the deadly mix, even though it has been billed as a safer alternative to the drugs that started the deadly chain described above.

The West Virginia Board of Pharmacy says the number of fatal overdoses in the state related to a nerve pain drug called gabapentin rose from just three in 2010 to 109 in 2015. The board expects deaths related to the drug – sold by Pfizer under the brand name Neurontin – to grow even higher in 2016 once final counts are completed. Mike Goff, a pharmacy board administrator, says addicts mix the drug with opioids or muscle-relaxants and anti-anxiety medications, a mix that causes an euphoric high but also can cause an unintentional overdose. “It’s showing up in cocktails of drugs that are showing up in overdose deaths,” he told the Charleston Gazette-Mail for a recent report.

The disturbing news comes even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has promoted the drug as a safer alternative to prescription opioids, according to the newspaper’s report, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved it for treating seizures and pain caused by shingles.

In response, a Board of Pharmacy committee is recommending that gabapentin be designated a controlled substance – a step that would allow the pharmacy board to track prescriptions for the drug, get a better handle on how big the problem is and help identify potential abuses. If that happens, pharmacies would have to report prescriptions for the drug, a requirement that Ohio put in place starting Dec. 1.

That’s a positive action that West Virginia should follow because it might help curb the deadly toll from misuse of this drug before it becomes exponentially higher. Making the drug a controlled substance will require action by the legislature, and West Virginia lawmakers should not hesitate to do so.

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