The West Virginia Board of Pharmacy has designated the nerve-pain medication gabapentin — sold under the brand name Neurontin — a “drug of concern” amid a surge of overdoses.
The pharmacy board has started to track gabapentin sales.
In a recent month, West Virginia pharmacies filled prescriptions for 5.8 million gabapentin tablets — more than the combined number of doses of two popular painkillers, hydrocodone and oxycodone.
Gabapentin-related overdose deaths have increased from 36 in 2012 to 106 last year.
“There has been a tremendous increase in the number of gabapentin dispensings and [those] involving overdoses,” Mike Goff, the pharmacy board’s acting executive director, told state lawmakers Tuesday. “We’re tracking the drug now, and we’re seeing what we thought we would see.”
The drug, which some bill as an alternative to opioids for pain relief, also has caught the attention of doctors.
“Gabapentin has become a drug of abuse,” said Dr. Brad Henry, president of the West Virginia State Medical Association. “It has a market value on the streets. It’s being abused and meets the definition of a scheduled drug.”
State lawmakers are expected to introduce legislation next month that would classify gabapentin as a controlled substance in West Virginia, a designation that would increase reporting requirements and likely reduce the number of pills prescribed. Legislative staff handed out a draft bill Tuesday that aims to combat the opioid crisis, and the legislation includes new restrictions on gabapentin.
“It’s an opportunity to get a better hold on that medication,” Henry said.
Ohio has been tracking gabapentin prescription sales for more than a year. Kentucky designated gabapentin as a controlled substance in July.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved gabapentin to treat seizures and pain caused by shingles. Some veterinarians also use it to treat epilepsy and seizures in dogs and cats.
A study released earlier this year and first reported by the Pain News Network found that one out of five people taking the drug are using it illegally. More than half took it with an opioid and about a quarter with an opioid and a muscle-relaxant or anti-anxiety medication, such as Xanax, according to researchers at ARIA Diagnostics.
A report by IMS Health found that prescriptions for gabapentin increased 42 percent over the past five years nationwide. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has promoted the drug as a safer alternative to prescription opioids.
Also Tuesday, state health officials told lawmakers that fatal drug overdoses in West Virginia this year could be 20 percent higher than last year’s record number of 884.
Sen. Tom Takubo, R-Kan-awha, described the state’s drug problem as “rampant.” Takubo, a South Charleston doctor who specializes in pulmonary medicine, frequently works in intensive care units at area hospitals.
“This weekend,” he said, “we had a patient shooting heroin in the waiting room of one of our ICUs — in front of everybody and their kids, with kids’ toys right there.”