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Why it's so hard to win the war against US oxycodone epidemic

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Price says local officials managed to "force" the clinic to move elsewhere, but no arrests were made. Subsequently, the county placed a moratorium on new "pain clinics," and towns like Woodstock are crafting tough regulations that require owners to be licensed physicians. Four remaining pain clinics in the county "are being watched carefully," says Price.

The fact that town councils are using zoning codes to thwart a drug epidemic indicates how widespread prescription opioid abuse has become – as well as how hard it is to check, says Dr. Humphreys.

But it's also a sign of the difficult debate among regulators, police, and the medical establishment as they try to squash the epidemic. "The problem we face is that policy is always a cudgel, never a rapier," he says. "In trying to solve the abuse problem, do we leave someone in a nursing home crying in pain?"

For addicts, the effects of pharmaceutical opioids can be pernicious and life-altering. One user, profiled in the 2009 television documentary "The Oxycontin Express," continued to seek out pills even after his wife and his brother died of pharmaceutical pill addictions.

More people now die of oxy abuse than of heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine abuse combined. There were some 11,000 oxy-related overdose deaths in 2007 (the latest national figure available), a tripling since 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta. "The number today is much worse," says Humphreys. Emergency-room visits stemming from prescription-drug overdoses doubled from 2004 to 2009, when they topped 1.2 million, report federal health officials.

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