The Army will soon begin expanded testing of soldiers for unauthorized prescription drugs, in addition to currently tested illegal substances.
"We're starting with hydrocodone and hydromorphone as the first expansion" of testing said Lt. Col. Shaun Bailey, chief of the drug testing branch at the Army Center for Substance Abuse Programs. He explained that these two pain-killers are widely used, as they are found in Vicodin and other brand-named drugs.
"We will continue to expand and increase our prescription drug-testing capabilities in the months to come," Bailey said. "We're not limiting ourselves in this initial announcement."
The expanded testing of urinalysis samples will begin around May 1 and ramp up as more labs come online. The program will be fully implemented Army-wide by Oct. 1 as part of the Army's crackdown on prescription drug abuse.
"We point toward the recent numbers that came out in the Army Gold Book—the Army 2020 Generating Health and Discipline in the Force, Report 2012—about the deaths in the Army related to prescription drugs as a warning and a message to the force about the seriousness," Bailey said.
Bailey said there are stiff penalties for taking unauthorized medications.
"Now we're doing education to try and inform but ultimately these are Schedule 1 controlled drugs. If you took my prescription pill out of my medicine cabinet, that's a felony. It's like taking heroin. You're going to pay the price," he said.
"If you have a valid prescription for the medication, you're good to go. We want to treat our Soldiers, so we're only trying to pass the message that now is the time to take account of what you're doing for your health and well-being," he said.
"So say you hurt your back in Afghanistan and they gave a prescription for hydrocodone, which is Vicodin, very common trade name, which I'm not endorsing, and you're back in the States with no active prescription. But you have a bottle in your house, which you get after turning around in your garage and twisting your back.
"If you take the Vicodin without a prescription—that is criminal behavior we want to educate people about. So go to the doctor, go to the emergency room, go wherever and get a valid prescription and do what they tell you to do."
About four years ago, Baily said the Army began testing for OxyContin, "which the Army didn't introduce to the world, but it kind of came with the society. That was our first step in prescription drug testing.
"We're expanding that and the reason we were first speaking about hydrocodone is that it's the most widely prescribed so the fundamentals of supply and demand are there."
As a body, the Army tests about 200 percent a year active-duty, including mobilized and National Guardsmen, Bailey said. More than 1.4 million urine samples were tested last year.
"So every month at every major installation, commanders test four percent a week or 12 percent a month, randomly, and then if commanders have concerns about a particular kind of mission, they can do a unit sweep in which every Soldier will be tested. It's part of everyday life in maneuver units in the operational Army," he added.