Military’s drug policy threatens troops’ health, doctors say

Army leaders are increasingly concerned about the growing use and abuse of prescription drugs by soldiers, but a Nextgov investigation shows a U.S. Central Command policy that allows troops a 90- or 180-day supply of highly addictive psychotropic drugs before they deploy to combat contributes to the problem.

Drug formulary includes drugs like Valium and Xanax, used to treat depression, as well as the antipsychotic Seroquel, originally developed to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, mania and depression.

Dr. Grace Jackson, a former Navy psychiatrist, told Nextgov she resigned her commission in 2002 “out of conscience, because I did not want to be a pill pusher.”

A June 2010 internal report from the Defense Department’s Pharmacoeconomic Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio showed that 213,972, or 20 percent of the 1.1 million active-duty troops surveyed, were taking some form of psychotropic drug: antidepressants, antipsychotics, sedative hypnotics, or other controlled substances.

Dr. Grace Jackson, a former Navy psychiatrist, told Nextgov she resigned her commission in 2002 “out of conscience, because I did not want to be a pill pusher.” She believes psychotropic drugs have so many inherent dangers that “the CENTCOM CNS formulary is destroying the force,” she said.

Dr. Greg Smith, who runs the Los Angles-based Comprehensive Pain Relief Group, which treats chronic pain and prescription drug abuse through an integrative medical approach called the Nutrition, Emotional/Psychological, Social/Financial and Physical program, said he was shocked by CENTCOM’s drug policy for deployed troops. “If I was a commander I’d worry about what these troops would do,” as a result of their medications, Smith said.

Dr. Peter Breggin, an Ithaca, N.Y., psychiatrist who testified before a House Veterans Affairs Committee last September on the relationship between medication and veterans’ suicides, said flatly, “You should not send troops into combat on psychotropic drugs.” Medications on the CENTCOM CNS formulary can cause loss of judgment and self-control and could result in increased violence and suicidal impulses, Breggin said.

The Army implicated prescription drugs as contributing to suicides in a July 2010 report, which said one-third of all active-duty military suicides involved prescription drugs.

When the suicide report was released, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff, said the service needed to develop better controls for prescription drugs. “Let’s make sure when we prescribe that we put an end date on that prescription, so it doesn’t remain an open-ended opportunity for somebody to be abusing drugs,” Chiarelli said.

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Gregory Alan Smith, M.D.