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Misuse of prescription drugs could cost Airmen career, jail time

Airman 1st Class Ciara Travis disposes of old prescription medication at the Ramstein AB Clinic pharmacy lobby July 27, 2010, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. At Ramstein AB, there has been a spike in the number of people who misuse prescription medication and test positive for a drug test, which can cause serious repercussions for a servicemember's career. Airman Travis is an 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs apprentice. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Amanda Dick)

Airman 1st Class Ciara Travis disposes of old prescription medication at the Ramstein AB Clinic pharmacy lobby July 27, 2010, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. At Ramstein AB, there has been a spike in the number of people who misuse prescription medication and test positive for a drug test, which can cause serious repercussions for a servicemember's career. Airman Travis is an 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs apprentice. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Amanda Dick)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- Sitting in his room with a headache, an Airman contemplates whether or not to take pain medication that was prescribed to him for a tooth extraction several months ago.

He decides it's pain medication, and he's suffering from pain, so there can be no harm. The next day, the Airman tests positive in a random drug test. His career now hangs in the balance.

People testing positive from misuse of prescription and over-the-counter medication are becoming a common occurrence here and throughout the Air Force.

"The numbers are on the rise," said Alex Tremble, a Ramstein AB Drug Demand Reduction program manager. "They have jumped up at least 40 to 50 percent within the last year. And, it's not just here; it's in the (U.S.) as well."

To use medication for anything other than its intended purpose or other than prescribed is considered to be misuse, illegal and punishable by the Uniformed Code of Military Justice.

"The Uniformed Code of Military Justice states it is illegal to wrongfully use controlled substances," said Capt. S. Daniel Colton, an 86th Airlift Wing Judge Advocate assistant staff judge advocate. "Wrongful in its basic definition is without a legitimate medical reason. Having a prescription for a specific issue is a valid medical reason."

"The prescription itself is going to expire six months after it's written ... that's federal law," said Maj. Crystal Price, the 86th Medical Group chief of pharmacy services. "Keeping the pain medication in your possession past its intended use will set up the potential for breaking that rule for which the medication was intended. (Saying) 'I didn't know the rules; I didn't know that,' is not an excuse for misuse. You knew it was given to you for your tooth extraction, muscle tear or surgery. The fact that you're saving it instead of getting rid of it is putting you in the position to be at risk."

Airmen can also find themselves in another dilemma if they share medication.

"If you give medication to your friends or sell it, that's drug trafficking; it's a federal offense," Major Price said.

The excuse of "my friend gave it to me" doesn't work either.

"The first thing that happens when you test positive on a drug test is it goes to a medical reviewer to see if you were prescribed the medication," said Capt. Bob Greiman, the 86th Medical Operations Squadron Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment Program officer in charge. "If it's not in your medical records, it can create some problems for you."

Every Airman should know what is being given to them whether prescribed or over the counter to avoid the risk, Major Price said.

In some countries, there are things that can be obtained legally that are not authorized for military members' use.

"In Germany, there are certain medications you can buy over the counter that you can only get by prescription in the (U.S.)," Captain Colton said. "If it's on the controlled substance list, it's a controlled substance whether you get it in the U.S. or in Germany. If you're in the military and you use it, you've still violated the law. You're always under the UCMJ, and you can still be prosecuted for wrongful use."

While there is no list of banned items for the Air Force, U.S. Code Title 21 Section 812 lists the types of controlled substances considered illegal. This list, as well as other information on illegal drug use, can be found on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's website at www.justice.gov/dea/pubs/csa/812.htm.

If a member is prosecuted under the UCMJ for wrongful use, they could face up to a dishonorable or bad conduct discharge, incarceration and total forfeitures of pay and allowances, Captain Colton said.

One way to avoid being in this predicament is to properly dispose of unused medication. In some places, medication can't be dumped in the toilet or thrown away at home. Because of this, at some installations, there is a medication drop box to dispose of old or leftover medication.

Ramstein AB legal and medical officials also offer this advice to help avoid medication misuse:
  • Review product ingredients; know what you are taking.
  • See your physician to get medication if you're sick or in pain, instead of buying over the counter.
  • Let your physician know if you've come into contact with a controlled substance while on the job, so it can be documented in your medication profile that an accident occurred. Example: if you're opening a box, and the substance inside is broken and gets on you.
  • Only take medication for its intended purpose and for the prescribed dosage amount.
"You could be a really good Airman," Mr. Tremble said. "The next thing you know, you're standing in front of legal, having to explain why you used the drug. Don't put yourself and your command at risk."
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