Pharmacists—Cops or Not? (Part 1)

MARCH 01, 2006
Cmdr John Burke

Just recently, I was approached by some rather irate pharmacists who had seen a couple of articles about the fact that they were receiving very little training on dealing with drug diversion. The articles went on to point a finger at them for not doing more to curb the abuse and addiction of pharmaceutical drugs.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University conducted a research project on the problem of prescription drug abuse. I offered a small amount of information for this study. The study provided much of the information that was causing my pharmacist friends to be upset.

The results of the study showed that the abuse of controlled prescription drugs almost doubled from 1992 to 2003. The number of Americans abusing these drugs climbed from 7.8 million to 15.1 million. During this same time, the abuse of these drugs by teenagers went up by 212%. CASA also found that the prescribing of controlled substances increased by 150%—a rate that is nearly 3 times the rate of increase for all other prescription medications.

The CASA report also stated that less than half of the pharmacists surveyed had received any training in preventing drug diversion, and only about half of them gave high marks for the education they received on this topic. CASA Chairman- President Joseph Califano Jr indicated that pharmacists should be more vigilant and take more responsibility in curbing the abuse of prescription drugs.

So, should pharmacists be more like cops, or not?

Undoubtedly, there has been a huge rise in the prescribing and abuse of pharmaceutical drugs over the past decade. Pharmacists, like law enforcement officers, continue to find stopping this abuse a demanding part of their jobs, yet with few resources available—and in some instances, shrinking resources.

In the past week, I discovered that the drug diversion enforcement group of the Cincinnati Police Department, which I had the honor of organizing and which I commanded for 9 years, had been essentially disbanded due to funding cuts. A neighboring drug task force laid off its only pharmaceutical diversion investigator, further diminishing this resource for our pharmacists in southwest Ohio.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated situation. Many law enforcement agencies never had a drug diversion investigator or unit, and none is likely to form during this time of fiscal troubles in all forms and levels of government.

I have found that pharmacists are more than willing to assist law enforcement regarding drug diversion. Unquestionably, they are law enforcement's essential partners in successful pharmaceutical diversion investigations in any community.

The problem is, how do pharmacists address prescription drug issues at their workplace if law enforcement is not there to assist them? If prescribing and abuse of controlled substances continue to rise, and law enforcement's funding and interest in these investigations are declining, what can pharmacists do in the meantime?

I will take a further look at this problem in next month's article.

John Burke, commander of the Warren County, Ohio, drug task force and retired commander of the Cincinnati Police Pharmaceutical Diversion Squad, is a 38-year veteran of law enforcement. Cmdr Burke also is the current president of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators. For information, he can be reached by e-mail at, via the Web site, or by phone at 513-336-0070.