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Military testing soldiers for misuse of prescription drugs

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Posted: Wednesday, May 2, 2012 12:00 pm

By Colleen Flaherty

Fort Hood Herald

After putting out a warning, the military has begun testing troops for unauthorized use of the prescription drugs hydrocodone and benzodiazepine.

It already tested for codeine and morphine in addition to illicit drugs.

The Pentagon announced in February it would begin more rigorous screening, giving troops misusing hydrocodone or benzodiazepine a 90-day warning - an unprecedented move in more than 40 years of military drug testing.

Hydrocodone and benzodiazepine testing began Tuesday.

Troops using the medications as prescribed will not face a penalty. Hydrocodone is used in a number of prescription painkillers, including Vicodin. Benzodiazepines are a class of antidepressants present in drugs such as Xanax and Valium.

Dr. Jennifer Potter, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio whose research centers on opioid use in people with pain and substance use disorders, said hydrocodone and other opioids are among the most misused drugs nationally.

While it's difficult to get entirely accurate numbers regarding prescription drug abuse in the armed forces, Potter said, "Rates in the military seem to mirror the rates in the civilian sector - but the rates in the civilian sector are high."

Military prescription drug use has increased in recent years, according to the U.S. Army Public Health Command. More than 110,000 active-duty soldiers took antidepressants, sedatives and other prescribed drugs last year.

Abuse also has increased, according to information from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Rates doubled between 2002 and 2005 and nearly tripled between 2005 and 2008 - even as illicit drug and tobacco use declined among military personnel.

About 17 percent of troops reported misusing prescription drugs, according to the 2008 Defense Department Survey of Health-Related Behaviors. The active-duty Army rate was even higher, at 24 percent. Pain relievers, as in the civilian population, were the most commonly misused drugs.

At Fort Hood, soldiers who have drug problems are treated through the substance abuse program. Soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder in addition to substance abuse issues can be treated at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center's Intensive Outpatient Program.

Post-wide drug prescription drug abuse statistics were not available.

During a news conference announcing the new testing policy in February, Joe Angello, director of operational readiness and security for the Defense Department, said prescription drug abuse has no place in the military.

"You're not at your peak mental acuity when you're using drugs," he said. "(We) cannot have people in the business of arms with drug impairments."

Potter said the step is one in the right direction. "My perspective is that the military is doing what it needs to do to manage the problem and taking responsibility for that," she said.

The psychiatrist cautioned, however, that fear of misuse must be weighed against the benefits of prescribing drugs to veterans - particularly injured warfighters - who would legitimately benefit from them.

And developing a physical dependency on a drug doesn't necessarily signal addiction, she said, but rather that the patient would need to taper its use when it was no longer needed.

"It's important that they don't feel stigmatized or that it's somehow a bad thing for them to be taking it," Potter said of patients taking their drugs as prescribed.

Contact Colleen Flaherty at colleenf@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7559. Follow her on Twitter at KDHFortHood.

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