DEA Puts Tighter Controls on Hydrocodone Combination Pills

Hydrocodone combination medications like Vicodin now classified as Schedule II

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has taken action to control the widespread abuse of narcotic painkillers. The agency has placed tighter restrictions on products containing one of the most common painkillers available.

The DEA has moved hydrocodone combination medications — such as Vicodin — from Schedule III to Schedule II drugs.

This action means that patients will need a doctor's written prescription, rather than one made over the phone, to get products containing hydrocodone, an opioid painkiller. It also means patients cannot get refills — they have to get another prescription from their doctor, instead.

"Take your medicines only as prescribed."

"Almost seven million Americans abuse controlled-substance prescription medications, including opioid painkillers, resulting in more deaths from prescription drug overdoses than auto accidents," said DEA Administrator Michelle Leonhart in a press release announcing the DEA decision. "Today's action recognizes that these products are some of the most addictive and potentially dangerous prescription medications available."

For decades, products with a combination of hydrocodone and other medicines were classified in Schedule III, even though hydrocodone alone was in Schedule II. However, growing concerns in recent years about the epidemic of painkiller abuse led physician groups and other government agencies to call on the DEA to put tighter restrictions on hydrocodone combination products.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), overdose deaths from prescription painkillers have more than tripled in the past 20 years. In 2009 alone, prescription painkiller overdoses killed more than 15,500 people in the US.

While most experts agree that the painkiller abuse must be addressed, some groups have issues with the DEA action. The American Pharmacists Association and other pharmacy groups sent a joint letter to the DEA in April 2014 voicing their concerns.

In the letter, the pharmacy groups wrote that the "vast majority of patients taking hydrocodone do so legitimately."

They went on to tell the DEA that hydrocodone combination products "play a key role in acute and chronic pain management and helping patients engage in the activities of daily life. Rescheduling [hydrocodone combination products] will have far-reaching consequences for millions of Americans who legitimately rely on them for short-term and chronic pain."

Nevertheless, millions of Americans continue to abuse painkillers. The CDC reports that about 12 million teens and adults said they used prescription painkillers to get "high" or for other nonmedical reasons.

Review Date: 
August 28, 2014
Last Updated:
August 31, 2014