Dying to get high: Deaths from prescription drug abuse on the rise
A community roundup today to dispose of unneeded prescription drugs could not only save the environment from chemicals seeping into the water supply, it could save lives.
“Kids are taking this stuff and dying,” said Carson City Coroner Ruth Rhines. Rhines would know. She has been coroner for nine years and her office is called out to all non-
hospice deaths in the city. In recent years, she said, it’s been impossible for her to ignore the increasing trend of young people dying of recreational prescription drug overdoses.
“What a waste,” she sighed.
In 2008 in Carson City, eight people died by accidentally consuming lethal levels of painkillers.
“They weren’t trying to kill themselves,” said Rhines.
In 2009, that number jumped to 12 people, the youngest being a 20-year-old woman who overdosed on oxycodone, a potent painkiller. OxyContin, a brand-name of oxycodone, and its counterpart Vicodin, a brand-name for hydrocodone, are addicting and believed to be the gateway to the much cheaper Mexican heroin that’s saturated the country.
The number of people who have died from prescription drug overdoses thus far in 2010 is not available because toxicology results take months to come back, said Rhines. But recreational drug overdoses are suspected in at least three cases.
According to Dr. Larry Pinson, executive secretary for the Nevada Board of Pharmacies, the United States consumes 60 percent of all the manufactured medications in the world. Americans are responsible for consuming 99 percent of the OxyContin manufactured.
He said since 1991 the amount of prescription drugs consumed in the U.S. has increased by 350 percent, with only a 19 percent increase in population.
“We just live in what I think is the most drug-
oriented society in history,” said Pinson. “I worry about kids. Numbers show that 2,500 youth abuse an opioid for the first time every day. Where do they get those drugs? The majority of them come from friends or family. They go through medicine chests and they find grandma’s Vicodin. That’s why the roundup is so important.”
While most people take prescription medications responsibly; an estimated
48 million people ages 12 and older have used prescription drugs recreationally. This represents approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population.
Also alarming is the fact that the 2004 National Institute on Drug Abuse survey found that more than
9 percent of 12th-graders reported using Vicodin without a prescription in the past year, and 5 percent reported using OxyContin.
“In the first 13 years I was a judge, I saw one case of heroin,” said Justice of the Peace John Tatro, who, along with Alternative Sentencing Chief Rory Planeta, gives talks to community groups on the hazards of opiate addiction. “Now I see at least one heroin-related case a day. In the vast majority of those cases that we see, the kids started out using prescription drugs. They get addicted, the prescription drugs are expensive and they cannot afford to maintain their habit so they turn to heroin because it’s substantially cheaper and easier to get.”
Tatro is also a member of Partnership Carson City, a coalition created in 2005, which aims to problem solve issues and concerns in Carson City. In conjunction with Lyon County Healthy Communities Coalition, Partnership Carson City is sponsoring the drug roundup.
“What Partnership Carson City is working toward is stopping it before it gets to heroin,” he said.
John Simms, chief juvenile probation officer, said one of the hurdles of educating parents is that they sometimes think only illegal drugs are abused by minors.
“Therein lies the problem. The societal naivete we have regarding prescription meds and minors is tremendous,” Simms said. “We don’t question children enough when they have prescription bottles. But carry a balloon, or a Baggie with white substances or green leafy substances and you’re nailed.”
Dr. Pinson said the state pharmacy board has put into place a way to determine if someone is “doctor shopping” – visiting different doctors to get multiple prescriptions either for their own use or to sell.
The Nevada Controlled Substance-Abuse Task Force logs each prescription filled in the state.
“We know who wrote the prescription. For whom it was written, what pharmacy filled it and for how many,” said Pinson.
Pharmacists are then required as part of the transaction to check the patient’s name against the database. If the patient is flagged as an abuser, they are not given the prescription and the abuse is addressed, said Pinson.
“The purpose of the task force is not to identify these people and turn them over to law enforcement and put them in jail. We try to identify them and get them into treatment,” he said.
Kathy Bartosz, executive director of Partnership Carson City, said the drug roundup was born from a realistic fear that teens could become addicted to opiates just by sitting at home.
“I think the first benefit is that we are getting some of these prescriptions that are just languishing in people’s medicine cabinets out of reach. And secondly it initiates the conversation. That’s what we need,” she said.