Gov. Brian Sandoval convened a drug abuse Summit on Tuesday saying prescription drug abuse, especially opioids such as Oxycontin, is reaching epidemic levels in Nevada.
He said he called the summit to get all stakeholders from law enforcement to treatment professionals and the courts together to get the problem under control.
According to statistics released at the summit, the rate of opioid prescribing by doctors to manage pain has steadily increased over the years. According to the Centers for Disease Control, opioid sales have quadrupled in the U.S. since 1999 despite the fact there has been no overall change in pain reported by people.
But, according to statistics released by the Division of Public and Behavioral Health, the number of overdose deaths in the state has fallen every year since 2011 and abuse of prescription medicines by high school students is down over that same period.
In 2011, there were a total of 531 overdose deaths involving opiates. By 2015, the number of deaths was down to 382. That total includes heroin overdoses along with prescription opioids.
Nevada is one of 10 states that reported a decrease in overdose deaths.
Sandoval said that still translates to one person in Nevada dying of an overdose every day.
Those overdose rates were highest among people between 25 and 54 years of age. Although women are more likely to use prescription opioids, officials say men are more likely to die from overdose.
Among the recommendations the committee is considering is beefing up requirements for doctors to use the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program to check on whether patients are getting prescriptions elsewhere. Sandoval said all patients should be checked through the PMP before a prescription is written.
In Fiscal 2015, that program reported 5.2 million prescriptions for controlled substances filled in Nevada but just 362,635 queries by physicians to that system. More than 2 million of those prescriptions were for opioids.
Full use of the PMP, officials said, could track not only patients getting multiple prescriptions from different doctors but identify doctors who are issuing too many such prescriptions.
Sandoval said the group will develop recommendations by August ahead of the 2017 Legislature.
Carson City Sgt. Daniel Gonzales said deputies don’t see large quantities of prescription pills, typically it’s just be a few pills at a time. Gonzales said the Special Enforcement Team has seen pill users as recently as last Friday, after initiating a traffic stop in a vehicle.
“Do we see it in Carson City? Yes, it will be usually just in people’s pockets or hidden in their socks. Usually we are seeing one or two because that is what the users can afford to get high at the time.”
He said people start with painkillers because you can find them in someone’s medicine cabinet, for instance if someone has surgery and gets Vicodin pills for the pain, they may not take them all and so as they sit in the cabinet it may not be as noticeable when pills get taken. Gonzales said they see more the tools people use to get high with pills.
Undersheriff Steve Albertsen said what the sheriff’s office doesn’t see is the legal addicts. He explained many people are “legally addicted” to prescription drug because they have prescriptions from their doctors to manage pain.
“And that’s the biggest problem, because we don’t see those people,” Albertsen said, saying they don’t have legal issues. “They are getting the pills the legal way, through their doctors.”
The importance of reducing prescription drug use is demonstrated when many users transition to more serious drugs such as heroin in order to achieve the same high. Sheriff’s Office officials said using the tools like prescription drug monitoring and educating the public, along with the prescription drug roundups help reduce the flow of drugs into the streets.
“By us stopping these pill users before, hopefully they don’t start on those opioids to get to heroin use.” Gonzales said.
Taylor Pettaway contributed to this story.