ADDRESSES AMERICAN PAIN SOCIETY (APS)
DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson addressed the American Pain Society (APS) at its annual meeting on Thursday, March 14, 2002, in Baltimore, Maryland. The 3,500 members of APS include physicians, researchers, psychologists, pharmacists, physical therapists, and others interested in pain research and therapy. The DEA has worked closely with APS to decrease the abuse of prescription drugs in the past, and conference participants were interested in discussing opioid diversion, particularly the recent high-profile cases involving OxyContin.
In the last several years, OxyContin, a powerful pain reliever, has received an extraordinary amount of news coverage. Pharmacies have been robbed not for cash, but for these small white capsules. Doctors have been arrested and their licenses revoked for prescribing the drug indiscriminately. Last month, a Florida jury convicted Dr. James Graves of four counts of manslaughter for the OxyContin overdose deaths of four of his patients. It was the first conviction of its kind, yet the conviction of two more doctors on similar charges followed soon after. Administrator Hutchinson was quick to point out to the APS conference, however, that the average law-abiding physician should not be concerned about prescribing the drug. "We do not randomly select doctors or pharmacists to investigate. The vast majority of the time, the DEA is alerted to possible illegal activity through complaints from pharmacists, other doctors or nurses, family members, local law enforcement, or state authorities. The vast majority of doctors will never even see the DEA during their careers."
Mr. Hutchinson also discussed the controversies surrounding medical marijuana and physician-assisted suicide. Once again, he assured participants that the DEA wanted to work with health care providers to serve their patients better but also reminded them that they had to work within the construct of existing laws. He noted that none of the studies on medical marijuana have produced results indicating that patients benefit from its use. However, the DEA has authorized a study at the University of California - San Diego, studying the safety and efficacy of cannabis compounds in humans who have certain debilitating medical conditions.
He clarified the DEA's position on physician-assisted suicide as well. The central point of the agency's arguments is that the American public must be confident that controlled drugs are used for legitimate medical purposes and will cause no undue harm to patients. But, he said, physicians should not hesitate to prescribe suitable medications for pain relief, even if dosages to properly control pain entail the risk of hastening death.
Administrator Hutchinson concluded his remarks with a story about Mother Teresa, who, when asked how she was able to minister to so many thousands of sick and dying people, simply answered, "One at a time." He concluded by commending the American Pain Society for their efforts in helping the millions of Americans who experience undue pain each year.