TRENTON, N.J. (AP)— More than five years after New Jersey passed a law to start tracking prescription drug use, the state is launching a long-awaited database monitoring use of dangerous drugs with the intent of helping doctors spot abusers more quickly and authorities stop drug dealers.

The database has been collecting information since Sept. 1; to date, more than 4 million prescriptions have been entered. Starting this month, doctors and pharmacies, including mail-order operations, can access detailed patient information on prescriptions for painkillers, steroids, sedatives and stimulants.

“It’s going to allow us to track all prescription filled in the state of New Jersey and into the state of New Jersey by pharmacies that ship into the state,” said Thomas Calcagni, the director of the state Division of Consumer Affairs, which will oversee the database.

Including New Jersey, 40 states have such a program, according to the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws.

The number of Americans who abuse prescription drugs is greater than those who use cocaine, hallucinogens and heroin combined, according to a 2009 federal survey on drug use.

Push to get the New Jersey program operating became more of a priority following a series of stories by The Star-Ledger of Newark last year that exposed widespread abuse of steroids and human growth hormone by police and firefighters.

“There are benefits coming to this late in the game,” Calcagni said. “We’ve learned a lot from their mistakes.”

For example, unlike many of the other states, human growth hormone prescriptions will be tracked.

Law enforcement agencies will have access to the information, but only after obtaining a court order declaring probable cause, a higher standard than in most other states, which only require the search be related to an active investigation.

The Drug Enforcement Administration’s New Jersey division “is committed to fighting the prescription drug problem with every available tool possible in order to protect our citizens,” said Brian Crowell, special agent in charge of the division. He called the database invaluable in helping stop the spread of drugs.

The program cost $244,000 to set up and will cost $177,000 a year to maintain, but authorities say it will save much more by spotting abusers. The costs are covered in large part through a $350,000 federal grant. Optimum Technology of Columbus, Ohio, was chosen to oversee the database.

New Jersey’s program will be more proactive in looking for abuse than many other states where the onus is placed on the doctors and pharmacists to contact law enforcement when they see suspicious activity, Calcagni said. His division will monitor the database for outliers and signs of abuse, warning doctors when patients exceed certain thresholds.

Prescription drug use has been steadily growing in New Jersey and around the country, surpassing cocaine and heroin use, and falling only second to marijuana use.

In 2010, there were more than 7,200 people in New Jersey who were admitted to certified substance abuse treatment programs as a result of prescription painkiller abuse, an increase of nearly 2,000 from the previous year and up more than 5,000 from 2005, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

What do you think of the Garden States latest move in the battle against prescription drug abuse? Leave your thoughts in our comments section below…

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)