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Federal regulators have been putting off the decision about whether to put tighter controls on the painkiller hydrocodone for many years, according to the Associated Press. Emergency room visits related to the drug, the key ingredient in Vicodin and other painkillers, have soared since 2000, the article notes. In 2009, more than 86,000 ER visits were related to the non-medical use of hydrocodone.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have been considering whether to change the classification of medications containing hydrocodone from Schedule III to the more restrictive Schedule II category since 1999. Schedule II drugs must be locked up at pharmacies. Physicians can only prescribe one bottle at a time and patients must have an original prescription in order to obtain the medication. Schedule III drugs can be refilled up to six times without visiting a doctor, who can phone or fax in a prescription to the pharmacy.

The AP reports the two agencies have repeatedly passed information back and forth about hydrocodone over the past 12 years, without making any final decisions about the drug.

The DEA notes that hydrocodone is the most frequently prescribed opiate in the United States, with more than 139 million prescriptions for hydrocodone-containing products dispensed in 2010 and more than 36 million in the first quarter of 2011. A review of police drug labs finds seizures of pills containing hydrocodone are second only to those of oxycodone. Last year, almost 45,000 pills containing hydrocodone were seized in the U.S.

A bill was introduced in Congress in March that would tighten controls on hydrocodone, bypassing the FDA and DEA rulemaking process.


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