08/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Ban on Painkillers Helps No One

As a recovering painkiller addict still nursing the wounds of a five-year habit, I'm probably the last person you'd expect to come out in opposition to a ban on Vicodin and Percocet. Unless you think I'm anticipating a relapse and don't want my candy taken away from me.

Not to worry -- Percocet made me ill and Vicodin, despite being my "gateway" pill, was like baby aspirin in the end. But I still believe that Tuesday's vote from a federal advisory panel to ban these drugs is rash and reactionary. The main concern is that long term use of these medications will cause liver damage. This is a valid cause for alarm, it's a proven fact.

Patients who have been taking a combination of an opiate and acetaminophen over a long period of time will develop a tolerance to the analgesic effect, creating the need for higher and higher doses of these medications, increasing the chances of liver damage. What should happen in those circumstances is that the patient, followed closely under a doctor's supervision, get switched to a different and stronger opioid medication that doesn't contain a large amount of the potentially harmful substance. There are plenty of other painkillers available that don't contain acetaminophen, but they have a higher potential for abuse. Vicodin and Percocet work well for the short term pain that accompanies minor procedures like wisdom teeth removal. No one needs morphine for minor lower back pain.

What everyone seems to be forgetting under this current wave of panic over painkillers is that in most cases, it isn't a painkiller alone that is causing people to die. Deaths occur when patients mix these treatments with other substances that affect the central nervous system, like alcohol and anti-anxiety medications like Valium or Xanax. This can happen either through purposeful abuse, neglectful prescribing, or plain old naivete (in our age of instant information, anyone who doesn't at least do some minor research on a prescribed drug is basically asleep). Yet painkillers are usually what gets the brunt of the blame and this creates a stigma, making it much more difficult for people who really do need the medication to receive it.

The idea that someone with cancer might someday be unable to find relief because of hysteria-induced bans induced by addicts, myself included, is horrific, and enough to make my resolve to never abuse these drugs again even stronger. We can't combat painkillers like any other drug epidemic by trying to eliminate the source. The medications being abused are very necessary tools that must remain available to people who are living with debilitating diseases. The DEA's campaign against pharmaceutical abuse, called Good Medicine, Bad Behavior, gets the message right in its name. But if we really want to find a way to curb drug abuse of any kind, more focus needs to go into studying the nature of addiction and physical dependence, not the objects of desire.