It’s Time to Empty America’s Medicine Cabinet

Overbrook Park drug slaying highlights national prescription pill epidemic.

Overbrook Park is normally a pretty quiet neighborhood. Working-class families, well-maintained homes, shiny new (and used) cars parked out front—it’s like a small slice of suburbia bleeding through into city limits. Trouble, when it occurs, rarely escalates into any form of violence, bloodshed or gunplay. By and large, these are peace-loving people who get up every day and go to work to provide for their families. It is hardly a drug corner or problem area.

Then there are the Bennetts. The veil was lifted early last week in an apparent drug-related slaying that left Rohan “Sonny” Bennett, 13, and his brother Christopher Malcolm, 17, dead at the hands of an as-yet-unknown gunman. Worse, police allege that the teens were killed in a drug transaction instigated by their parents, Rohan and Cynthia Bennett. A search of the family’s home after the shooting netted more than $100,000 in cash, four handguns, a bit of pot and more than 1,700 illegal prescription medications including oxycodone, Percocet, morphine, Xanax and codeine, along with blank prescription pads for re-upping. Police, not surprisingly, are currently charging Cynthia and Rohan with multiple narcotics possession and distribution counts.

As the PPD’s Captain Joseph Bologna pointed out in a recent Inquirer article, this incident is not generally representative of Overbrook overall—it is, in fact, an “anomaly.” What it is indicative of, however, is the United States’ only and fastest-growing drug epidemic: prescription pill abuse. While Drug War supporters trumpet street drugs like heroin and cocaine as America’s leading killers, the CDC says otherwise; prescription painkillers now kill more than 40 people a day in the U.S., more than cocaine and heroin combined. In 2010 alone, some 12 million Americans admitted to abusing prescription drugs in the past year. And as opioid abuse increases, so too will ODs: Since 1999, fatal prescription pill overdoses have more than tripled to more than 15,000 deaths annually.

To most, this should not come as a surprise. We’ve all heard of the “pill mills” throughout the country that churn out script after script, pumping the great medicated masses full with any combination of hydrocodone, oxymorphone, methadone, oxycodone, Percodan or Xanax, among many others. We’ve known for years that drug companies provide incentives to doctors who prescribe their wares; Dr. Drew even got named earlier this month for his involvement with GlaxoSmithKline’s Wellbutrin debacle that cost the company $3 billion in settlement charges. In this post 9/11 world, the notion of the medicated nation has become the norm—even our children, one every hour, are born addicted to some form of prescription painkiller, that number having tripled over the past decade.

Is it really any wonder, then, where the Bennetts got their extensive stash? We are literally surrounded by prescription medication, so much so that we must organize days to safely dispose of all our excess pills—the first area Take-Back Day in 2010 even netted some 121 tons of prescription drugs for the DEA to haul away. Further, is it any wonder who’s buying? One in every 20 American adults owns up to abusing prescription pills, according to the CDC, so it’s no mystery there—it’s our neighbors and co-workers and parents and siblings. It is the mainstream. It is Middle America.

Sadly, it seems unavoidable that if we do nothing to stem this epidemic, incidents like that which befell the young Bennetts will become increasingly more common alongside overdoses and arrests. The lure of fast money and repeat customers is too great for some of those in need (or want) of cash to ignore, and the more sociopathic among us will put our children, our neighbors, our entire communities up as a front to keep that gravy train rolling—a few of them will even wear a tie while they do it. Strange what money can do.

This epidemic, while disheartening and massive in scope, is—more than anything—a signal that our drug policy must be reevaluated. Are opiate-based medications necessary for the myriad of conditions for which they’re prescribed? Does everyone with the blues need to pop a Xanax? Say what you want about creating more comprehensive prescription databases and monitoring pill intake and output, but shouldn’t the goal here be developing non-narcotic medications? Or at least limiting the list of what ailments they’re good for?

Otherwise, the alternative is the perpetual drug violence, addiction and overdose cycle to which we’ve become accustomed. Perhaps this is what DARE had in mind with “just say no.”