3 On Your Side Investigates: New Avenue of Rx Abuse? - MSNewsNow.com - Jackson, MS

3 On Your Side Investigates: New Avenue of Rx Abuse?

JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) -

At least one U.S. senator wants federal drug officials to investigate overdose deaths connected with the nerve-pain medication gabapentin, labeled a "drug of concern" by the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy.

A letter from U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) details concerns about the drug, connected to 106 overdose deaths in that state in 2016.

While gabapentin is used to treat everything from pain to mood disorders, there is mounting research uncovering misuse of -- even a black market for -- this popular prescription.  

Doctors also use it off-label to treat everything from insomnia to migraines to anxiety. Sixty-four million prescriptions of it were sold in the U.S. in 2016, up more than 60% from four years earlier. 

However, gabapentin is not classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a scheduled substance, nor is it scheduled or controlled in Mississippi, either.

Because of those lax regulations, experts say there is growing evidence it’s being abused.

3 On Your Side has learned it's even being sold on the streets -- and online -- under the name “Johnnys.” 

Dr. Joseph Insler, an addiction psychiatrist, said he sees it all too often.

“Sometimes, I've even experienced patients ask me for their “Johnnys” and then they'll, maybe, catch themselves and say, ‘No, no, no. I mean gabapentin,’” Insler said. 

Why is this prescription being misused? 

“I think that some individuals may say that they use it to get high, and others may say they use it and get a drowsy effect. So, we're talking about the euphoria versus sedation, “ says Rachel Vickers Smith, Ph.D.

Dr. Vickers Smith wrote her dissertation on gabapentin abuse when studying drug abusers in Appalachia.

“We found a nearly 3,000 percent increase from 2008 to about 2014 in individuals reporting gabapentin abuse for the purposes of getting high," Vickers Smith said.

It didn't take long to find people online talking about taking “Johnnys”, or gabapentin, to get high. There were also threads of people trying to spread awareness about the abuse. 

Experts say gabapentin is typically misused by substance abusers who mix it with other drugs, but Insler says it’s also possible for people with legitimate prescriptions to misuse, too.

Patients taking excessively high doses, leading to early refills, should be seen as a red flag, Insler added.

A growing body of research shows the problem of abuse, especially among substance abusers, is evident. 

But some experts also worry about the number of prescriptions being handed out. 

A recent New England Journal of Medicine letter warned that “clinicians who are desperate for alternatives to opioids” are “increasingly prescribing gabapentin” and that “evidence suggests that some patients misuse, abuse or divert gabapentin.” 

"I think that's why it's really important to get out the message," Vickers Smith said.

Gabapentin is not a controlled substance or scheduled drug on the Federal level. 

3 On Your Side reached out to several government agencies. There was little information on potential abuse although the National Institute on Drug Abuse pointed to existing research and a DEA spokesperson said the agency is beginning to receive calls. 

"I don't think that gabapentin abuse is on the CDC, DEA’s, NIDA’s radar, in part because we had this opioid epidemic," Vickers Smith said.

Experts consulted for this report stress that gabapentin abuse isn't an epidemic at this point, but they believe abuse of the drug should be watched closely, with more research needed.

3 On Your Side contacted two of the manufacturers of gabapentin, including Pfizer.

A spokesperson for Pfizer would not answer concerns or questions about abuse or addiction issues.

“Gabapentin is an important treatment option for their approved indications," the spokesperson said.

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