Washington (CNN) - The face of drug addiction has changed, and the government is working to adapt.
The 21st-century drug addict is more likely to get a fix from a medicine cabinet than from a needle. More than 5 million Americans misused prescription painkillers in a one-month period in 2009, according to a National Survey on Drug Use and Health from that year.
And a huge majority - more than 70% - of those prescription-drug abusers said they got the drugs from friends and relatives.
"We believe there are two unique reasons for the growth in prescription drug abuse - easy accessibility to the drugs and the diminished perception of risk," Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee Tuesday.
Kerlikowske joined a slate of witnesses to describe the skyrocketing addiction statistics and a host of federal and state initiatives designed to stem the tide – several of which are still in the planning stages.
A White House plan released last month to confront prescription drug abuse emphasizes spreading public awareness of the problem by mandatory education of physicians who prescribe painkillers and also for people who receive the prescriptions.
"In many cases, prescription drugs remain in household medicine cabinets well after medication therapy has been completed, thus providing easy access to non-medical users for abuse, accidental ingestion or illegal distribution for profit," said Michele Leonhart, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Officials are crafting regulations to carry out a law Congress passed last year that will allow states to enable pharmacies to accept people's unused prescription drugs for disposal. In the meantime the DEA has organized two national prescription drug take-back days to collect unused or expired medications. On the most recent take-back day, Americans turned in 188 tons of unused or expired drugs at sites across the country for disposal.
Another measure awaiting a DEA final rule would allow electronic tracking of prescriptions, partly in the hopes of preventing forgeries and "doctor shopping," when an addict receives multiple prescriptions from different physicians.
Leonhart said she hoped both measures would be operational by the end of this year.
But Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, complained at the slow pace of reforms and asked panel members to pull any strings they could.
"It has been astounding to me as a newly-elected senator to see the pace at which federal rulemaking slogs forward," he said. "I've become - I don't know what you call it but - impatient, I guess, with the pace of federal rulemaking, and you may be in the position to expedite it a bit."
Another witness underlined the urgency.
"Daily, 50 people in our nation die from unintentional prescription opioid overdoses and, daily, 20 times that number are admitted to hospital emergency departments for opioid overdoses," said John Eadie, director of the Prescription Monitoring Program Center of Excellence at Brandeis University.