“I don’t think the medical profession has been really scrupulous about counseling people on the dangers of these drugs,” Brennan says. “Maybe the doctors themselves weren’t as aware as they should have been.” And even when patients are informed about their meds’ addictive qualities, they don’t always listen. That’s understandable, she says, because unlike illegal narcotics, these drugs don’t come with “a big red warning flag and society’s stamp of disapproval.”
Even when adults don’t become hooked, their pills are a danger to their children, who, looking to experiment, may swipe a few from the medicine chest. Brennan’s rehab sources told her this was becoming an especially big problem on Staten Island. “So some of our investigators went out there to take a look,” she says. “These people had been heroin investigators in the ’70s, and they said they saw the exact same thing. Kids nodding out in the shopping centers and all over the place. And so we started working on a case there where we identified oxycodone being sold out of an ice cream truck.”
Even people patronizing honest businesses are getting caught in the crossfire. U.S. drugstore robberies have risen 80 percent over the past five years; on Long Island, New York, a pharmacist, cashier and two customers were murdered in broad daylight by a gunman stealing more than 10,000 hydrocodone pills. “Drugged driving” arrests are also on the rise; New York senator Charles Schumer, citing the “explosive growth of prescription drug abuse,” has cosponsored federal legislation to fund technology and training that would help police better identify drug-impaired motorists.
Everyone, Brennan insists, knows someone who has struggled with chronic pain and/or become addicted to prescription painkillers. The issue hit close to home five years ago when Brennan’s daughter developed pain in her hip and knee.
“We were going to doctor after doctor and having test after test,” she recalls. “My poor daughter was waking up with tremendous pain in the middle of the night, and all I could do was give her some Tylenol. I remember phoning one doctor and saying, ‘Isn’t there anything we can do for her?’ This was an orthopedist I had seen a couple of times, and she said, ‘We’ll send you a prescription for Percocet.’ ”
Although she’d been seeking help, Brennan was outraged by the doctor’s response. As much as it distressed her to see her child suffer, Brennan worried about giving her such a strong drug. “This was for an 11-year-old kid. Percocet for an 11-year-old?” She called her daughter’s pediatrician. “She said, ‘What? That’s crazy. They can’t treat the pain until they find out what’s causing it.’ ” After more tests, it was discovered that her daughter had an autoimmune condition, says Brennan, adding that the disorder is now under control.
“It’s always hard to strike the balance between prescribing adequate pain meds and not creating an addiction in an otherwise healthy person,” she says. “And I think that balance has gotten screwed up.”