Should Gabapentin Be a Controlled Substance?

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration should consider scheduling gabapentin (Neurontin) as a controlled substance, according to researchers who studied the recreational use of the drug in Kentucky.

Gabapentin is a nerve medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat epilepsy and post-herpetic neuralgia (shingles), but it is also widely prescribed off-label to treat fibromyalgia, migraines, neuropathy and other chronic pain conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even recommends gabapentin as a safer alternative to opioids.

Sales of gabapentin have soared in recent years. About 64 million prescriptions were written for gabapentin in the U.S. in 20l6, a 49% increase in just five years.

But drug abusers have also discovered that gabapentin can heighten the effects of heroin, marijuana, cocaine and other substances.

"People are looking for other drugs to substitute for opioids, and gabapentin has filled that place for some," said Rachel Vickers Smith, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville School of Nursing. “Some have said it gives them a high similar to opioids. It had been easy to get a prescription for gabapentin and it's very cheap."

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Vickers Smith and her colleagues recruited 33 people from Appalachian Kentucky who used gabapentin recreationally and asked them about their drug use. Many reported they started taking gabapentin over 10 years earlier for a legitimate medical condition, such as pain and anxiety. Over time, they started using the drug to help them relax, sleep and get high.

“Focus group responses highlighted the low cost of gabapentin for the purpose of getting high and noted increasing popularity in the community, particularly over the last 2 years. Gabapentin was a prominent drug of abuse in two cohorts of the primarily opioid-using individuals. Providers should be aware of gabapentin’s abuse potential, and a reexamination of the need for scheduling is warranted,” researchers reported in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

In 2017, Kentucky became the first state to classify gabapentin as a controlled substance, which makes it more difficult for the medication to be prescribed. Ohio’s Substance Abuse Monitoring Network also issued an alert warning of gabapentin misuse across the state.

‘Snake Oil of the 20th Century’

Gabapentin was first approved by the FDA in 1993 and sold by Pfizer under the brand name Neurontin. A few years later, it was so widely prescribed that a top Pfizer executive called gabapentin “the snake oil of the twentieth century” in an email. The company was later fined hundreds of millions of dollars for promoting Neurontin’s off-label use.

"Early on, it was assumed to have no abuse potential," says Vickers Smith. "There's a need to examine it in further detail, especially if prescribing it is going to be encouraged."

Federal health officials have only recently started looking into the misuse and abuse of gabapentinoids, a class of nerve medication that includes gabapentin and pregabalin (Lyrica).

"Our preliminary findings show that abuse of gabapentinoids doesn't yet appear to be widespread, but use continues to increase, especially for gabapentin," FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said last week at a conference on opioid prescribing. "We're concerned that abuse and misuse of these drugs may result in serious adverse events such as respiratory depression and death. We want to understand changes in how patients are using these medications."

Gottlieb said FDA investigators are looking at websites and social media where opioid users discuss their use of gabapentinoids.

"We know we need to investigate and respond to signs of abuse as soon as signals emerge. We need to get ahead of these problems," he said.

Gabapentin is not currently scheduled as a controlled substance by the DEA, while Lyrica is classified as a Schedule V controlled substance, meaning it has a low potential for addiction and abuse.