Hydrocodone Rescheduling Fueled Online Drug Sales

By Pat Anson, Editor

Hydrocodone was once the most widely prescribed and one of the most abused drugs in the United States. Over 135 million prescriptions were filled in 2012 for hydrocodone combination products such as Vicodin, Lortab and Norco.

Then in 2014 the Drug Enforcement Administration rescheduled the opioid painkiller from a Schedule III controlled substance to the more restrictive category of Schedule II. The move was intended to reduce the prescribing of hydrocodone – and it quickly had the desired effect.  By 2017, only 81 million prescriptions for hydrocodone were filled.  

But while legal prescriptions for hydrocodone have gone down, the DEA’s 2014 rescheduling may have fueled a surge in illegal online sales of hydrocodone and other opioids, according to a new study in the British Medical Journal.    

“The scheduling change in hydrocodone combination products coincided with a statistically significant, sustained increase in illicit trading of opioids through online US cryptomarkets. These changes were not observed for other drug groups or in other countries,” wrote lead author Jack Cunliffe, PhD, a lecturer in data analysis and criminology at the University of Kent.

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Cunliffe and his colleagues studied these online cryptomarkets – also known as the “dark web” – by using web crawling software that scans the internet looking for websites dedicated to online sales of illicit drugs. From October 2013 to July 2016, they found that sales of prescription opioids on the dark web nearly doubled, from 6.7% to 13.7% of all online drug sales.  

“Our results are consistent with the possibility that the schedule change might have directly contributed to the changes we observed in the supply of illicit opioids,” said Cunliffe. “One explanation is that cryptomarket vendors perceived an increase in demand and responded by placing more listings for prescription opioids and thereby increasing supply.”

‘Iron Law of Prohibition’

The increase in supply and demand wasn’t just for hydrocodone. The researchers also noted a growing number of online listings for more potent opioids, such as oxycodone and fentanyl. They attribute that to the “iron law of prohibition” – banning or reducing the supply of one drug encourages users to seek more potent drugs from new sources.

“We found that users were first buying oxycodone followed by fentanyl. Drug users adapt to their changing environment and are able to source drugs from new distribution channels if needed, even if that means by illegal means. In a context of high demand, supply side interventions are therefore likely to push opioid users towards illicit supplies, which may increase the harms associated with their drug use and make monitoring more difficult,” Cunliffe wrote.

As PNN has reported, business is booming for illegal online pharmacies. As many as 35,000 are in operation worldwide and about 20 new ones are launched every day. About half are selling counterfeit painkillers and other medications. Overdoses involving fentanyl and other synthetic opioids – most of them purchased on the black market – have also increased and now outnumber those linked to prescription opioids.

"The study’s findings are troubling but not surprising. As you’ve well reported, there are often unexpected and negative externalities resulting from well-intended anti-addiction interventions," Libby Baney, Principal, Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting and senior advisor to Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies said in an email to PNN. 

"What’s worse still, when buying medicine online - whether from dark or surface web sellers - it is virtually impossible for the consumer to know if the product is what it claims (in this case, an opioid like oxycodone) or is a dangerous counterfeit laced with a deadly dose of elephant tranquilizer or poison. As too many victims have shown, even one pill can kill."

A recent study at the University of Texas Medical Branch also found an association between hydrocodone's rescheduling and increased opioid abuse.  Researchers found that hydrocodone prescriptions for Medicare patients declined after rescheduling, but opioid-related hospitalizations increased significantly for elderly patients who did not have a prescription for opioids.

Major Decline in Hydrocodone Prescribing

By Pat Anson, Editor

Prescriptions for Vicodin and other hydrocodone products declined dramatically in the United States after the opioid pain medication was rescheduled by the Drug Enforcement Administration to make it harder to obtain. But there may have been unintended consequences for cancer patients, according to a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

In October 2014 the DEA rescheduled hydrocodone from a Schedule III controlled substance to a more restrictive Schedule II medication because of its “high abuse potential.”

The rescheduling limits patients taking Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet and other hydrocodone combination products to an initial 90-day supply and requires them to see a doctor for a new prescription each time they need a refill.

In the first year after rescheduling, the number of hydrocodone prescriptions in the U.S. plunged by 22 percent, from nearly 120 million to 93.5 million.

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“Dispensed hydrocodone combination product prescriptions decreased substantially after rescheduling by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, with 26.3 million fewer hydrocodone combination product prescriptions and 1.1 billion fewer hydrocodone combination product tablets dispensed in the year after rescheduling,” wrote lead author Christopher Jones, PharmD, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Most of this decline was due to the elimination of hydrocodone combination product prescription refills, consistent with the prohibition on prescription refills for schedule II medications.”

The decline in prescribing was seen in almost all healthcare specialties, including primary care, surgery, dentistry, emergency medicine and oncology. Nearly 187,000 fewer prescriptions for hydrocodone were written for cancer patients in the first year after rescheduling, a decline of nearly 21 percent.

“It appears that up-scheduling of hydrocodone accomplished the goal of the DEA,” said Lynn Webster, MD, past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and author of The Painful Truth. “The more important question is what impact this has had on the rate of abuse and patient access to the medication. It may be too early to know whether rescheduling has affected the rate of people abusing opioids or if it just forced some abusers to seek alternatives like heroin.

“The JAMA report suggests that even cancer patients found it more difficult to obtain hydrocodone. That should be alarming to the medical community and illustrate to policy makers and law enforcement there are consequences to every action and in this case some people have been subjected to more cost, inconveniences and abandonment without any data to suggest an improvement in abuse or overdoses.”

Interestingly, the number of hydrocodone prescriptions written by pain management specialists after rescheduling increased by 7 percent. And there was a modest 4.9% increase in the number of prescriptions for opioids other than hydrocodone, as some patients apparently switched to opioids that were easier to obtain.

"The uptick from pain specialists most likely reflects a transfer of narcotic provision from non-specialists to specialists. That is, a decrease in prescribing from those who have less training in prescribing opioid pain relievers offset to some extent by an increase from those who have more such training," said Stuart Gitlow, MD, Executive Director of the Annenberg Physician Training Program in Addictive Disease and past president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Gitlow believes the large overall decline in hydrocodone prescribing was a sign that many of the refills being ordered before rescheduling "were ultimately determined to be unnecessary."

"This was not meant to address the overall opioid prescribing problem, but was rather filling one hole in the dike," Gitlow wrote in an email to Pain News Network. "There remains much left to do, such as removal of the cap for treatment of opioid use disorders in office settings, and availability of tapering to avoid having patients move to heroin when their supply of prescription narcotics is suddenly cut off."

Hydrocodone was once the most widely prescribed medication in the United States, with over 137 million prescriptions annually. Prescribing of hydrocodone was already in decline before rescheduling, because of growing concern the drug was being abused and diverted.