One of a precious few things politicians from both sides of the aisle seem to be able to agree on these days is that the misuse and abuse of prescription, opioid pain drugs. Studies have show that the misuse of these drugs are ruining millions of lives throughout the U.S. Officials are working to determine the appropriate legislative solution.
While most citizens use the medication as prescribed by their doctors, the abuse of oxycodone and hydrocodone is considered to have reached an epidemic level in the U.S., with the impact of opioid-related incarcerations and deaths affecting a wide swath of the country.
The epidemic is caught in a vicious cycle as blame is attributed amongst the parties involved, including the patients who misuse the drugs, the doctors who fill out the prescriptions, the pharmacies that hand over medication, the drug manufactures and those involved in the black market distribution.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that in Illinois, about 17 out of every 100,000 Illinois residents died because of their improper use of pain killers such as oxycodone or hydrocodone during 2017, the last year numbers were available. These are drugs likely to be prescribed by physicians or dentists for moderate to severe pain. If you’ve had a tooth pulled recently, you’ve probably taken a bottle home.
The problem with the drugs is that they are highly addictive and – some allege – too readily available. The drugs can become a “gateway” to more dangerous substances such as heroin and methamphetamine .
NIDA states that nationally, up to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them and up to 12 percent of patients develop an addiction. The situation becomes murkier when those who are prescribed the drugs allow others to “borrow” the pills or even re-sell them.
Last week, the Washington Post published an article that included a link to U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s exhaustive national data base, which provides precise, localized information on opioid distribution. The data covers the period between 2006 and 2012. Some highlights include:
– A total of 6,998,810 prescription pain pills were purchased for resale by pharmacies in Monroe County between 2006 and 2012. That equates to 30.8 opioid pills per county resident annually;
– Opioid distribution per person per year for our neighboring counties, based on the recently-released DEA data is: Randolph – 37.1; St. Clair – 29; St. Louis, Mo., – 31.1; and Jefferson, Mo., – 35.7.
(Mingo County, West Virginia has one of the highest per-capita distribution rates in the nation, with an average of 203 pills per person per year doled out between 2006-2012.)
– Most of the pills were sold at the county’s two Walgreens stores. The Waterloo Walgreens sold 1.41 million opioids while the Columbia Walgreens sold 1.39 million. It should be noted that Walgreens has at no point been formally accused of any wrongdoing in connection with filling prescriptions for oxycodone or hydrocodone. In fact, in response to the potentially negative Post coverage, Walgreens issued the following statement: “Walgreens pharmacists are highly trained professionals, committed to dispensing legitimate prescriptions that meet the needs of our patients. Walgreens has not distributed prescription-controlled substances since 2014 and before that time, only distributed to our chain of pharmacies. Walgreens has been an industry leader in combating this crisis in the communities where our pharmacies live and work.”
The DEA data base does not attempt to assign any numbers to how many of the opioid drugs sold in Monroe County and elsewhere around the country have been misused, illegally borrowed or resold or how many deaths have resulted. It simply lists the data of the number that was distributed by county.
Monroe County Coroner Bob Hill said there have been 11 deaths in Monroe County attributable to opioid abuse since 2012, all overdoes.
“In almost every case, it starts with someone getting a prescription for some pain pills after surgery, they become addicted and then try to keeping getting them or using somebody else’s. That can lead to street drugs,” Hill said.
“It is absolutely a problem in every city and every part of our county. Monroe County is definitely not immune to it,” Hill said.
The time window for the statistics the DEA data base reveals coincides with County Commissioner Vicki Koerber’s term as county coroner. “It’s definitely going on here in Monroe County. I can recall times returning from a call with a popcorn tin filled with prescription bottles.”
“When I had a death and I know we were dealing with narcotics, I would call the pharmacy and let them know so that if a prescription came in under that decedents’ name – which is one way these opioids are getting out there – that prescription should not be filled,” Koerber said.
Koerber said when she released drug abuse numbers from the 2010-2014 period, it opened many people’s eyes to the extent of the problem locally. She said, however, that there seems to be progress on the opioid front because of litigation that has targeted pharmaceutical companies.
“I’m not saying to crucify these folks for filling prescriptions. But it’s being proactive,” said Koerber. “Where in the past a physician might prescribe 30 to 90 oxycodones for a patient recovering from an accident, now they are limiting it to five or six days of pills, then on to physical therapy.”
Koerber said it is ironic that while state legislatures are working for solutions to the opioid phenomenon, “our legislators in Springfield, in their infinite wisdom, are legalizing marijuana.”
Monroe County Sheriff Neal Rohlfing has had his eye on drug-related issues, but currently does not have numbers pertinent specifically to opioids.
“We have had limited arrests for prescription pills, but we have seen an increase in controlled substance and methamphetamine arrests,” said Rohlfing. “We have seen a 120-percent increase in arrests for unlawful possession of methamphetamine and we have had 15 arrests for unlawful possession of a controlled substance for this year already, compared to 20 arrests total for 2018.”
Rohlfing said his department’s strategy has been the same for the past four and a half years, and that is to continue its proactive criminal enforcement.
“The implementation of our aggressive criminal enforcement unit has contributed greatly to the increase in arrests,” said Rohlfing. “We also educate our residents every chance we get of the negative effects of drug use and also promote turning in old prescriptions to the local police departments for proper disposal.”
Data from counties in all 50 U.S. states was published online in July by the Washington Post newspaper. The data is being used in several lawsuits involving opioid-related deaths, which now account for more annual U.S. death than car accidents.
The data was released in July when U.S. District Judge Dan Polster of Ohio lifted a protective order that had previously been placed on the data. Judge Polster sided with a request from The Washington Post and H.D. Media, publisher of the Charleston, West Virginia Gazette-Mail.
The Washington Post points out that, “This database allows readers to learn how much hydrocodone and oxycodone went to individual states and counties, and which companies and distributors were responsible.”
The paper adds, “It’s important to remember that the number of pills in each county does not necessarily mean those pills went to people who live in that county. The data only shows us what pharmacies the pills are shipped to and nothing else.”