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July 29th, 2009
08:03 AM ET

Commentary: America's drug problem got so bad because we didn't raise the alarm

[cnn-photo-caption image=
caption="Kerlikowske says drugs that come out of parents’ medicine cabinets are just as deadly as other drugs."]

Michael Jackson’s alleged addiction to prescription drugs has been part of the ongoing investigation into his death. Dr. Conrad Murray is said to have given Jackson the powerful anesthetic Propofol to help him sleep. Police believe that drug may have contributed to his death.

Director of the office of national drug control policy at the White House, R. Gil Kerlikowske spoke with CNN’s John Roberts Wednesday

John Roberts:
I wanted to ask this, not as a law enforcement question but from a substance abuse perspective which falls into your arena. To use the drug Propofol, which is used either as a sedative for surgery or a general anesthetic, to use it as a sleeping medication would that constitute the abuse of that drug?

Director R. Gil Kerlikowske:
You know I’m not an M.D. I can tell you the prescription drug issue is really significant throughout the United States. And of course, we've seen that in paper after paper after paper. I don't have the facts about the Michael Jackson case, the very sad and tragic loss that occurred there, but I can tell you that prescription drug problems are a problem in this country.

Roberts: The police and drug enforcement administration are looking to whether or not he used aliases to try to get drugs, whether he was doctor shopping. We hear about people doctor shopping and prescription drug abuse. How did it get so bad in this country?

Kerlikowske: I think it got so bad because we didn't raise the alarm. It's been bad for a while. If you look, the most recent data, which unfortunately is 2006, tells us that more people have died from overdoses than have died from gunshot wounds in this country. And frankly, this is something that in many ways can be prevented.

Roberts: So, when you talk about prevention, you talk about trying to curb demand and education from that standpoint. And then there's also enforcement. How do you effectively enforce something like this? You take a look at the fact that more than 56 million prescriptions were written for sleeping medication in 2008 alone, that's up 54% since 2004.

Kerlikowske: Well, there are two things. One is that 38 states have prescription drug monitoring programs. These are electronic databases and they help health officials and in some cases depending on how the law is written, law enforcement. And they can look at over-prescribing by a physician but they can also look at patients who are, as you mentioned, doctor shopping. The other thing, of course, is that a lot of this comes out of parents' medicine cabinets.

Parents can do an awful lot. We have a website, http://www.Theanti-drug.Com. Parents can get a huge amount of information. We've seen significant problems with kids that have experimented thinking that, ‘hey, these are prescription drugs, these are safe,’ and, in fact, they are just as deadly and just as addictive as anything that comes from anyplace else.

Roberts: You came to this job from your former job. You were the police chief of Seattle. Was it possible in Seattle to effectively police this?

Kerlikowske: It's a very difficult thing to police but I think the prevention piece is by far one of the most important parts and that parents can do an awful lot. These prescription drug monitoring programs in Washington state, where I just left, is under way. Those are great programs to help law enforcement and officials to deal with the problem.

Roberts: The two things that go hand in hand, too, prevention and treatment. You're there in Mexico City and the Mexican government has undertaken a pilot program to establish drug courts for those found guilty of committing crimes while under the influence of drugs may not be sentenced to jail, rather they may be put into treatment programs. There's a rising call in this country for something similar. Rather than put these drug offenders in jail, put them in treatment programs. Do you think the Mexican model is something that could be repeated effectively here?

Kerlikowske: I think that the drug courts are incredibly positive turn for the Mexican government. They're undergoing tremendous stress. President Calderon, without question…is by far one of the most courageous leaders in the free world to take this on. The balanced approach that they're using, which is tough law enforcement on the traffickers and seizures, but also treatment. And drug courts came from the United States. We've actually been assisting the government of Mexico with this. They're 20 years old. They're over 2,000 drug courts in the United States and I think they've been proven effective.

Roberts: But, again, there are people who say we're putting too many drug offenders in jail that we need to reach out more to the treatment side of things. Do we need to do a better job of that in this country?

Kerlikowske: I do. I do. And the United States it's without question, a more balanced approach, a focus on prevention and a focus on treatment. You know, treatment works. And the Obama administration recognizes that addiction is a disease. It’s a disease, like a lot of other diseases. It isn’t a moral failure of somebody. There are treatments for it. We have seen, I have met personally now in 2 1/2 months, dozens of people who have successfully been through treatment, successfully turned their lives around. You know, they’re back in their neighborhoods, they’re working, they’re productive and paying taxes. It's a wonderful thing.

Filed under: Commentary • Crime
soundoff (119 Responses)
  1. jon

    Prescription drugs can jack you up. But in my opinion if someone wants to take the chance....let them kick the bucket. Atleast the money on prescription drugs stay inside US. Not many people listen to the drug Czar's anymore. I've never knew anyone get violent from pot, even when they run out like that one idiot was saying. People just use that as an excuse to do what they really want to do (scapegoat.) Marijuana is the best anti-depressant in the world. However it is just like all other substances, even food. Anyone can let anything control them. Until Marijuana is legalized I will not listen to a word the Czar says.

    Really....If doctors prescribe the medican to just about anyone should we care about if someone takes them that don't have a script.

    July 30, 2009 at 11:23 am |
  2. Bernice

    Legalize marijuana!! No kidding people! It would really help to fix the problem here! The thruths about it are finally outweighing the lies that the American People have been told about this plant! It would be a big help for all of these issues. It would slow down the need for the stronger medications while helping to address the medical needs of the American People! Anyone who disagrees, please research it and study up on just HOW WE WERE ALL LIED TO!

    WA State: That would NOT even work in my home! This ois our castle and I demand respect and obediance. I have raised 3 wonderful children, no drugs, no alcohol, gr8 grades while off to college, NO CRIMES! You need to take charge as thier parent!! That would be the day that MY KIDS told me how life was! They actually laughed when they read your note! My children would never get half the chance to do any of these things! i go with them to the docs.....end of the story! NO EXCEPTIONS! I do not care what they would tell me I had to do! These are MY CHILDREN, and I will raise them as I see fit! Now, I have one in college....wants to be a college professor! BE THE MOM!!! They depended on me to do so, not someone else! I have raised my children to know better than to do these things! It starts at home!!! I would be there for my children no matter WHO tried to stop me! You better have a mighty big gun, but then I may show up with a bigger one! These are MY KIDS! They are raised with high morals and that will NEVER change!

    July 30, 2009 at 9:39 am |
  3. Seattle Mom

    Kerlikowske did not mention that in WA State, kids age 13 & up make all their own healthcare decisions regarding mental (including chemical dependency) & reproductive health. Parents here can't force their kids to get medical help and all help in confidential between the Dr. and child which is why there are so many teens living on the street here. How can parents help their addicted kids when the laws say they have no right to do so? Many parents here don't know this is the case and those parents who do know this are too exhausted to fight their lawmakers.

    July 30, 2009 at 5:50 am |
  4. michele

    Incredible the ignorance of the person who said that because I lived with an (marijuana) addict, then I must have been doing it too. He knew I'd never move in with him if I knew. He hid it from me until I moved in. I just saw a semi-attractive glaze to his expression–I had no idea until all the furniture was moved in! This same man, 10 years later, has lost countless jobs, and still has a very attractive, semi-glazed, expression on his still-very-unmarried facebook page. He's nearly 55! His wife, I guess, is MaryJane. I was a home health aide for many years. I've seen young-ish people go in for spinal surgeries, and instead of the doctors insisting on therapies, they prescribe more and more. Some of their minimum wage, untrained, uncertified caregivers undoubtedly participate in taking the pills as they often don't come to work and leave these poor patients in bed, covered in piss and feces, for days. I used to have to go in at behest of a social worker to clean up and assess. Thes patients have been left with their pills, incompetent care, to lie atrophied in bed, flaccid from inactivity, now unable to walk, nearly impervious to therapy. I've seen many of these cases. They are not talked about as nobody sees them. They don't go out. They die before they are 40. PLEASE, almighty CNN, forward these comments to Mr. Grand Drug Czar. Mismanagement of medicines goes very deep in many ways. And obviously, attitudes (of the addicted and angry) are skewing the talk toward a ridiculous legalization of drugs. Their tone of voice/writing should tell you they are on the defensive, and will say anything, and attack anyone, just to stay stoned and stupid.

    July 29, 2009 at 11:28 pm |
  5. Joshua

    addiction is possibly the most mis-undestood epidemic worldwide. Please, learn about addiction and substance abuse, real information is out there. There is far too little knowledge and far too few truly effective treatment methods FOR THIS DISEASE, this needs to change.

    More rules or less rules, more DEA or less DEA, locks on your medicine cabnets and drug dealers behind bars will not stop this movement. Fewer people addicted to drugs (legal and illegal) will stop it. WE spend roughly $19 billion a year of federal money in the war on drugs. NIDA has an annual budge of 1.01 billion.

    As a family member of an addict, i empathize with people like Michele above. Fault here lies with everyone, not just a few crooked or naive doctors, pharmecudical companies and their products, idiot politicians, and the incompetant media. The majority of our society still TREATS addiction like a social, moral issue and a result of character flaw. Our government believes we can best fight this war by chasing drug lords and stocking our prisons for $19 billion a year, while fighting addiction itself with $1 billion a year. 19 to 1. That's our priority...

    July 29, 2009 at 3:28 pm |
  6. Chris

    Just a few comments on comments.

    "My son, who is in his late 20’s and a broker, smokes pot on a regular basis until he is drooling and nearly unconscious. ..... As a result of the pot addiction, he also is consuming alcohol in large quantities and thinks this is all just fine and he doesn’t have a problem."

    -Perhaps it's the large quantities of alcohol that is rendering your son unconscious without salivary control. In all seriousness, this can be a quite toxic combination as marijuana can allow someone to drink enough alcohol to succumb to alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal. You may need to intervention. If he were just smoking marijuana there would be no cause for concern and no drooling either.

    "Today’s marijauna is not at all what it was like in the 60’s and 70’s."

    -Thank goodness. That stuff was weak garbage at best.

    But really. Some people just want to go home after work and decompress. To do this some may exercise while others have a drink. Both of these methods are found to be acceptable, but the person who wants to just take a puff of marijuana is a criminal. This is the problem with America where prejudice runs rampant against all things that are not completely understood by certain members of society. Just ask any black man. Oh wait, you're afraid of them too.

    July 29, 2009 at 2:40 pm |
  7. Danny

    Interesting that no one has mentioned how easy it is to get pain pills on-line. My neighbor buys Retin-A for her skin on-line, and she also buys Vicodin for her grandmother's arthritis. at least once a month.

    I've seen her do her ordering on-line from a Parmacist in Europe.
    The Retin A was a slam dunk. The Vicodin only required a phone call from a Physician in Europe. The Physician asked why she needed the prescription, and she said for her Grandmother's Arthritis.

    That's it

    July 29, 2009 at 2:39 pm |
  8. homie

    ok Miss michele PhD i presume u got ur doctorate’s degree in drugology…………….not!!!I’m sorry that you had a relationship with a druggie, so you must of been on something when u were together therefore you should blame yourself for your own wrong doings !!! I’m sorry the TRUTH HURTS!!! oh and please feel free to correct my ENGRISH since you have time to correct others and their literacy!!!

    July 29, 2009 at 2:29 pm |
  9. rob

    ok Miss michele PhD i presume u got ur doctorate's degree in drugology................not!!!I'm sorry that you had a relationship with a druggie, so you must of been on something when u were together therefore you should blame yourself for your own wrong doings !!! I'm sorry the TRUTH HURTS!!! oh and please feel free to correct my ENGRISH since you have time to correct others and their literacy!!!

    July 29, 2009 at 2:28 pm |
  10. Dan Givens

    Four types of people support the "War on (Some) Drugs." They are:
    1. The uninformed,
    2. The just plain stupid,
    3. Those profiting from the illegality of drugs (eg. cartels, dealers, prisons, pharma, timber, police, judges, etc.)
    4. Politicians (the "all of the above" answer)

    July 29, 2009 at 2:25 pm |
  11. Chris

    July 29th, 2009 1:24 pm ET

    Michael said, "Boy, this article really brought out all the pot-head and other loonies and anarchists who argue for legalization of everything under the sun. I didn’t know these people even had internet access in the rocks they live under."

    Yea buddy, pot-heads are all loonies. It's not like any one here want's to pass joints out to kindergartners or anything.

    July 29, 2009 at 2:22 pm |
  12. michele

    I agree that so many people will die of their indulgences–be it food or heroin. That's our choice as human beings with big brains that always know where to get 'more'! I just think it's a shame, as in the commentary by Marky about his son, that days, weeks, and LIVES are spent in the pursuit of NOTHING but self gratification. I'm not talking about prescriptions–people need pain meds when they are in legitimate physical pain. They're mismanaged,no doubt. Don't get me started on Vietnam vets with PTSD only made worse by the candy dish of psych meds on their coffee tables that the VA is too swamped to monitor. These poor guys are left to manage their own meds until they're foaming at the mouth. I was a home health aide and tried to get VA to intervene on these cases–at least in my area it was like talking to a wall. I still hurt over the death of my brother due to the long term health effects of cocaine, and the estrangment of my fiance due to his daily retreat from life into a joint. Except for his work of course–he was oh so productive! Until he'd get fired for inattention. Over & over. He only THOUGHT he was productive! Funny how drugs do that to a person!

    July 29, 2009 at 2:19 pm |
  13. OTB

    Marky, your son is an alcoholic as well as a pothead, and no... the pot isn't the cause of his alcoholism. Sorry. It simply isn't. There appear to be a lot of powerful issues there and should absolutely seek counseling. If he's really drooling all over himself I wouldn't be surprised to hear he's abusing prescription painkillers like Xanex.

    He's a substance abuser, and that isn't MJ's fault.

    Anyone else find it odd how quickly this fell off CNN's front page? Somethign to do with the comments, perhaps?

    July 29, 2009 at 2:11 pm |
  14. Merry Red

    There is a great website called that helps parents talk to their kids about Rx abuse. Recommend every parent of a kid check it out.

    July 29, 2009 at 2:10 pm |
  15. adle1984

    Marky, to equate actual DEATHS to your son's laziness is utter garbage.

    You might as well have obese people blame fast food for their heath problems, even though 9 out of 10 cases, it's due to their own laziness and unwillingness to get some exercise and adjust their diet.

    How come I don't see you spout off on ALCOHOL, which is the leading cause and leading COST of our social problems?

    July 29, 2009 at 2:00 pm |
  16. rob420

    okay MICHELE miss Phd doctorate graduate honors in drugology ur right everybody is wrong ... not !!! you just been with the real druggies who cant handle it sorry for you! I'm sorry the TRUTH HURTS!!!!

    July 29, 2009 at 1:59 pm |
  17. Marky

    I am so worn out with hearing about how marijuana isn't addicting, doesn't destroy lives, and should be made legal so anyone can have that wants it. Apparently all you people who smoke pot believe you are just fine and have no issues at all, while anyone who uses prescription drugs of any kind must be an addict of the worst type. My son, who is in his late 20's and a broker, smokes pot on a regular basis until he is drooling and nearly unconscious. Do you think he is able to make a decent living and support his child when this is what he does on a nearly daily basis? As a result of the pot addiction, he also is consuming alcohol in large quantities and thinks this is all just fine and he doesn't have a problem. Making it legal will not change a thing. He will still be slobbering and getting wasted and shaking all day the next day. If he dies in a wreck, don't think I won't blame it on pot, unless he is absolutely sober and gets hit by a train. He's been so wasted behind the wheel, he didn't know where he was. That could be you or yours that is in an accident with him and it starts with pot.
    I am considered by you geniuses to have a problem because I am being treated by a doctor for pain issues resulting from severe multi-level disc disease and arthritis, which has even required several surgeries and I need to be on pain meds, which are watched carefully by said doctor. I do not doctor-shop (same one for 25 years) and always use the same pharmacy to have my scrips filled. I never take more than I'm prescribed and live a very productive life only because I have meds which enable me to function. It's no different than taking BP meds to keep my BP in check.
    I went through a pain management program which included counseling, learning to use TENS, a Neuro-stimulato, etc, and am regularly re-evaluated. If you have pain , there are lots of alternatives to marijauna. Today's marijauna is not at all what it was like in the 60's and 70's.
    If you want to defend marijuana, don't try to do it by saying it never hurt anyone. It doesn't hurt my son because it's illegal. He's not been arrested for it. It hurts him because it robs him of his ambition, it steals his desire to be his best at what he does, it makes him look like a fool instead of the smart, clever person he really is. It robs him of the money he needs to feed his child. Instead of having a conversation with a sharp young guy with a quick wit who is lots of fun, you look at a guy laid back on the sofa with drool going down his face and there's no conversation at all because he's kind of asleep. That's the evening. So there's the hurt to our whole family and it hurts a lot. And it doesn't have a thing to do with legal or not.

    July 29, 2009 at 1:49 pm |
  18. schmeckel

    We had this problem in this country before pharmaceutical companies paid big dollars to politicians. They called them cure-alls. They laced cough syrup with morphine and clamed it would take your pain away. Got the country addicted and politicians outlaw it. Funny how we let opiates back into our streets lawfully, after the lawmakers started getting paid by drug manufactures. THE SAME EXACT STORY 100 YEARS LATER.

    July 29, 2009 at 1:49 pm |
  19. BOB

    well lets see sex is addicting cigs , booze, percription drugs eating swearing ect ect so why not pass laws aginst anything that is addicting what will be left the goverment will be broke we will have crazy people everwhere crime like you have never seen so make drugs leagle tax them and let people die the way they want to they are going to do it anyway leagle or illeagle we are not god he gave us free will to do what we want as long as we are willing to pay the price take the money out of illeagle drugs and crime will drop states will get out of debt of course people are going to die that is part of life to many people trying to be GOD i have been a recovering alcoholic and drug user for many years but until i relized i had a problem no law or person was going to make me stop

    July 29, 2009 at 1:49 pm |
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