Prescription free-for-all: When cannabis is supervised but opioids aren’t

The spread of the opioid pandemic in Israel could have been prevented – or at least mitigated – almost 20 years ago, by introducing a computerized system to thwart unregulated use of prescriptions. A Health Ministry committee unanimously recommended it, the Knesset debated it several times and the government even found the budget to fund it. But the project never came into being and even today, in 2022, there’s no supervision of opioid prescriptions. The Justice Ministry says that the problem lies with personal privacy, but still manages to operate a similar system for the supervision of over 100,000 registered cannabis users. So, what’s the difference? The third part in a series of Shomrim investigations into the opioid crisis.


The spread of the opioid pandemic in Israel could have been prevented – or at least mitigated – almost 20 years ago, by introducing a computerized system to thwart unregulated use of prescriptions. A Health Ministry committee unanimously recommended it, the Knesset debated it several times and the government even found the budget to fund it. But the project never came into being and even today, in 2022, there’s no supervision of opioid prescriptions. The Justice Ministry says that the problem lies with personal privacy, but still manages to operate a similar system for the supervision of over 100,000 registered cannabis users. So, what’s the difference? The third part in a series of Shomrim investigations into the opioid crisis.


The spread of the opioid pandemic in Israel could have been prevented – or at least mitigated – almost 20 years ago, by introducing a computerized system to thwart unregulated use of prescriptions. A Health Ministry committee unanimously recommended it, the Knesset debated it several times and the government even found the budget to fund it. But the project never came into being and even today, in 2022, there’s no supervision of opioid prescriptions. The Justice Ministry says that the problem lies with personal privacy, but still manages to operate a similar system for the supervision of over 100,000 registered cannabis users. So, what’s the difference? The third part in a series of Shomrim investigations into the opioid crisis.


Daniel Dolev

Demonstrators Protest At Department Of Justice Against Sackler Family, Purdue Pharma. Photo: Reuters

January 24, 2022

Summary

Over the past few weeks, Shomrim, in conjunction with TheMarker, has published a series of investigations looking at the extent of the opioid addiction crisis in Israel. This silent but deadly plague has claimed more than half a million lives in the United States, led to a drop in life expectancy and has been declared a national emergency. In Israel, the Health Ministry set up a special taskforce to look into the overuse of prescription opioids. However, the minutes of that committee’s meetings, as revealed by Shomrim, show that, even after three years of discussions, members of the panel have not even been provided with full statistics from the health maintenance organizations as to the extent that these addictive painkillers are being prescribed. The partial figures provided by the HMOs, coupled with studies conducted in recent years, suggest that hundreds of thousands of Israelis are being prescribed opioids – many of them for a long period of time.

Documents obtained by Shomrim now show that, as far back as 2003, Israel could have acquired a game-changing weapon in its battle against addictive drugs – but the project never got off the ground. The idea was simple: establishing a computer network to link up physicians, patients, and pharmacies. The system would have prevented the misuse of prescriptions, both forgeries, and reusable photocopies since it would register each prescription as having been filled. In addition, the system would be able to identify physicians or pharmacists handing out unusual quantities of opioids, and, at the push of a button, provide an overview of the consumption of these drugs in Israel. These are figures that the Health Ministry is unable to provide to this day.

The Justice Ministry, in response to questions from Shomrim, said that “the establishment of the system that was proposed by the Health Ministry to the Justice Ministry created significant and disproportionate problems in terms of safeguarding citizens’ privacy.”

Hagai Brosh, who heads the treatment and rehabilitation division of the Israel Anti-Drug Authority, told Shomrim that, “a similar system exists in the Health Ministry’s medical cannabis unit. I’m no legal expert, but we know that there are 110,000 Israelis who receive cannabis – and there’s a computer system to oversee all of that. So, I have to believe those problems are surmountable.”

Brosh adds that “instead of drug dealing, we’re seeing a growing trend toward prescription opioids. The moment you take the drugs off the street, you conceal the crime that accompanies it; because today there’s a trade-in between those drugs and in prescriptions. You can use the Telegram app and buy any prescription you want.

“We’re seeing that between 50 percent and 60 percent of these drugs are prescribed by a family doctor. I might be exaggerating slightly, but if you were to take these drugs for a couple of months, you’d develop some kind of dependency; and the moment the prescription runs out, you’ll go to the black market. A normative person, with a family and a career, suddenly finds himself unable to function. It can very easily break families apart.”

This is a summary of shomrim's story published in Hebrew.
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