Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut never saw this coming. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has invited Atlanta residents to report fellow citizens for suspicion of illicit prescription drug activity. By texting TIP411, one may summon a G-man to investigate just about anyone.
A low-paid pharmacy technician drives a pimped ride, way beyond his station. Suspicious. Another is popular with women addicted to prescription painkillers and other powerful narcotics. Suspicious. The Goth girl has cut marks on her forearm beneath her white pharmacy coat. Way suspicious. Any of these characters might — and should — be reported to a government increasingly worried about the health of the population.
Among the first to implement a text-message narcing campaign are the state of Georgia and Philadelphia as drug addiction grows in scope, according to Rick Allen, director of the Georgia Drug and Narcotics Agency. "It really is out of control here," Allen told CNN.
Prescription drug abuse has become a national epidemic as the rate of overdoses has more than tripled since 1990, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Tellingly, the tripling of drug overdoses in America has mirrored a tripling of sales for powerful prescription painkillers.
By 2008, illegal use of prescription drugs caused more deaths than overdoses from traditional street drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Like other times in history, today’s drug abusers often develop their addiction by using legal medications, and then continue to buy drugs obtained by someone holding a legal prescription. Although a drug-store robbery makes the headline, 97.7 percent of users say they get their drugs through a friend or acquaintance rather than through a dealer, according to the CDC.
Harry Sommers, a special agent who leads the DEA’s Atlanta office, says the growth of prescription drug abuse is no mystery. "The illegal prescription drug market and relative ease of which pharmaceutical substances can be obtained has resulted in a sharp increase in prescription drug abuse," he told CNN.
The federal agency is also distributing pamphlets to 1,200 Atlanta-area pharmacies to encourage the use of the reporting system. Among other ruses, drug sellers and abusers may try to impersonate doctors on the telephone or alter prescriptions with false information to otherwise fool pharmacists into selling the drugs. Aside from watching for frequent customers raising obvious suspicion, the DEA advises technicians that requests for stimulants and depressions — uppers and downers — by the same customer may indicate addiction to prescription painkillers. Similarly, the “doctor’s” handwriting on the prescription may be deemed too legible, and therefore a likely forgery — in this way, allowing thumb-texters to report those with good penmanship to the government.
Still, although some may blanche at greater population health surveillance, the CDC says 36,000 Americans died in 2008 of drug overdoses, most of them precription painkillers.