A New York state senator from Long Island is calling on fellow lawmakers to tighten controls over hydrocodone, the key ingredient in Vicodin and other painkillers, amid growing concern over abuse of the powerful and addictive narcotic.
Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City), chairman of the New York Senate’s Health Committee, filed a bill Wednesday that would move products containing hydrocodone from Schedule III of the state’s Controlled Substances Act to the more restrictive Schedule II. The move comes one day before a Long Island man is expected to plead guilty to charges that he gunned down four people at a pharmacy in order to steal thousands of hydrocodone pills.
The bill increases the punishments for possessing hydrocodone without a prescription. It also means pain patients could no longer get refills and would have to visit their doctor for a new prescription every time they needed more pills, Hannon said.
“We’re basically saying that there is a far greater danger than was originally realized, and that things like Vicodin should be more strictly controlled,” Hannon said Wednesday.
The bill follows an article by The Associated Press detailing how the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Food and Drug Administration have been postponing a decision on a similar proposal since 1999. On Tuesday the influential American Society of Addiction Medicine urged the FDA to act, citing the AP story.
Hydrocodone has become the country’s second most-abused medicine after oxycodone, the key ingredient in OxyContin, according to DEA data. Emergency room visits related to non-medical hydrocodone use quadrupled between 2000 and 2009, soaring from 19,221 to 86,258 in 2009. Overdoses kill hundreds of people each year.
The rising tide of abuse was underscored on June 19, when a man walked into the Haven Drugs pharmacy in Medford, Long Island and shot the pharmacist and a clerk. When two customers walked into the pharmacy, the gunman shot them in the head. He then left with a backpack stuffed with hydrocodone pills.
The crime shocked New Yorkers and dominated the region’s headlines for days. Prosecutors have charged 33-year-old David Laffer with the killings and his wife, Melinda Brady, 30, with robbery for allegedly driving the getaway car. A law enforcement official, who is familiar with the case but was not authorized to release information and spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that both are expected to plead guilty Thursday to all charges.
Hydrocodone and oxycodone are both powerful narcotics related to opium, but they fall into different legal categories when mixed with a non-narcotic painkiller such as acetaminophen or aspirin.
Under federal law, oxycodone combinations like Percocet or Percodan are classified as Schedule II drugs. Their hydrocodone equivalents like Vicodin, Lortab or Norco fall into the less restrictive Schedule III.
States have their own drug laws and controlled substance schedules, but they usually mirror the federal rules.
The rules were drafted in the late 1960s, when scientists mistakenly believed that hydrocodone was only one-sixth as strong as highly addictive morphine. More recent studies have shown that pure hydrocodone is nearly as strong.
Under current New York law, doctors can prescribe up to five refills of Vicodin or other hydrocodone-containing pills. Hannon’s bill would eliminate refills.
The U.S. House of Representatives is considering a similar bill amending federal drug laws.
Bridget Brennan, the special narcotics prosecutor for New York City, said the state bill would give prosecutors more legal tools as they go after hydrocodone traffickers.
“We’d strongly support the legislation,” Brennan said. “It would significantly enhance the penalties for people who have large amounts of the drugs.”
Under current state law, there is no minimum punishment for possessing Vicodin without a prescription, Brennan’s office said. Possessing two ounces or more is punishable by a maximum of five years in prison.
The proposed change would impose a variety of stiffer punishments: a maximum nine years in prison for possessing between a half-ounce and 4 ounces, three to 10 years for possessing four to eight ounces, and eight to 20 years for anything over 8 ounces, the spokeswoman said.
The move to Schedule II would also broaden the jurisdiction of the special prosecutor’s office. New York has become a hub for sales of the drug, but the special prosecutor’s office has been hobbled because it can only investigate hydrocodone sales within Manhattan, just one of the city’s five boroughs. The change would expand its jurisdiction to the entire city.
The New York bill would also move tramadol, a weaker narcotic, into the state’s Schedule III. Tramadol is used in Ultram, Rybix and other medicines, and is not currently controlled under state law.
Hannon said he proposed rescheduling tramadol out of fear that addicts might turn to it if hydrocodone becomes harder to get.