Officer Ryan Douglas has been on a suspicious death call in which the needle was still stuck in the arm of the deceased. Shooting up the prescription drug oxycodone gets a faster, more intense high, but is also riskier.
Ryan, a Chippewa Falls Police Department officer currently assigned to the West Central Drug Task Force, related how for a few weeks one summer in Eau Claire, there was about one death per week from oxycodone overdoses. Someone had apparently come into a stash of the drug, so there was a lot of it out on the street.
“It only takes one person with a lot of oxycodone to cause some deaths,” Douglas said, addressing a small group of people at an informational session on prescription drug abuse at the Chippewa Falls Public Library Monday night.
Methamphetamine, which gained so much publicity a few years ago, is still out there, though an initiative to combat it met with some success. Of course marijuana is still the most common drug on the street.
But increasingly the drug unit is spending more of its time on the abuse of prescription drugs. “Without a doubt,” Douglas said.
The effort to combat the problem has not reached the scale of the anti-meth initiative, but perhaps it should, he said.
The deaths Douglas described are among the more dramatic examples of what can happen. He can tell many such stories: North of Chippewa Falls recently at a suspicious death scene a patch meant to slowly release a pain killer into the body was found chewed up.
“That’s a quick way to enter the afterlife,” he said.
But the toll the problem takes on society is far-reaching, not limited to the tragic overdoses. It takes the same toll as addictions to alcohol, with shattered lives, broken families, pressure on the courts and penal system, law enforcement attention, and on and on.
And it would be so much easier to combat with just a few simple steps.
It’s not as if the exploding problem is unique to the Chippewa Valley. The area is probably catching the wave of this problem late as usual.
Katie Wehling, a community health educator with Pathways Substance Abuse Prevention and Intervention Agency, reviewed the trends in introducing the program.
In 1991, five million prescriptions were written in the United States for stimulants. In 2007, it was 35 million. A Canadian study found Oxycodone prescriptions rose 850 percent in the same period and deaths caused by overdose to opiates doubled.
“Part of it is there’s just a lot more of it out there,” said Paul Winger, a registered pharmacist and owner of The Medicine Shoppe in Chippewa Falls.
Wehling displayed a poster that caught her attention. It showed a picture of a bathroom medicine cabinet. “There’s a new dealer in town,” read the caption.
“And it’s not some stranger standing on a street corner. It’s the medicine cabinet in our own house,” she said.
Wehling said abuse of prescription drugs is estimated to have increased 80 percent in six years. Fifteen percent of high school seniors have abused prescription drugs. The average age of a person becoming addicted is 19.
As a pharmacist, Winger sees people who have become addicted to prescription drugs on a regular basis. That doesn’t mean they have all broken the law, or there wasn’t a reason why they were given a prescription to begin with.
But he’s seen the tricks, the most common being altering a prescription to increase the number allowed. There’s also doctor-shopping to find one who will write the prescription, and getting multiple prescriptions from multiple doctors.
Abusers fill the prescriptions at multiple pharmacies, perhaps having insurance cover one, but paying cash for the rest. The lack of coordination between pharmacies from different chains makes this possible.
“I’ve called the police quite a few times on people,” Winger said.
He can often tell who has a problem and look out for them. If a doctor is supposed to call in a prescription for a narcotic, sometimes a patient will call multiple times to ask if it has been called in yet, Winger said.
Tell a patient that a prescription can’t be refilled until Wednesday, and he may be waiting outside the door 20 minutes before opening on Wednesday.
“The reason they are waiting outside the door is that they have sales pending,” interjected Bill Gray, a drug unit officer assigned through the Chippewa County Sheriff’s Department.
Gray pointed out a way abusers fund their habit, since the drugs are usually expensive. They fill a prescription, sell some over cost to pay for it, and consume the rest, then think up a scheme to get more.
Lots of choices
One of the possible reasons for the increase in the prescription drug abuse problem, according to Wehling, is the fact that the drugs are, in fact, medicine. That gives the illusion to some people that the drugs are safe. But it all comes down to how they are used, and why.
Winger said prescription drug abuse usually falls into one of five categories.
-- Opiates is the big one. This includes oxycodone, Vicodin, Demerol, as well as morphine and methadone. “All are chemically-altered versions of codeine,” Winger said.
-- Sleeping pills and anti-anxiety drugs became popular with the introduction of Valium in the 1970s. They replaced a lot of barbiturates, which are still out there.
-- Ambien, a form of sleeping pill, was introduced on the market as a drug that couldn’t be abused. “It didn’t work out that way,” Winger said.
-- Stimulants include diet pills and the common medications for Attention Deficit Disorder, including Adderall and Ritalin.
-- Anabolic steroids are commonly abused, but Winger said pharmacies dispense little of it. People get it from other sources.
“We have everything the big cities have, just on a smaller scale,” said Douglas.
He noted that in big cities police departments will have task forces assigned to specific prescription drugs, like oxycodone. Here, the area drug unit — covering a six-county area — tries to keep up with it all.
Such a task force might have a better chance of penetrating the subculture of prescription drug abuse, which can revolve around a specific drug.
Winger has noticed that the people involved seem to know each other. Douglas confirms it.
He said addicts often don’t want to get well. They tend to gravitate into small groups of maybe six or eight people, all knowing when the other’s prescription gets filled. They share, but eventually the supply runs out and together they try different tricks to increase the supply.
Some turn to crime, stealing drugs in burglaries, or the money or merchandise to buy drugs.
This problem, though, is not limited to a subculture of young people. Recently the Herald ran an article about a 60-year-old nurse who used her position to obtain prescription drugs. It hits all walks of life and income groups.
Winger recalls a case of a woman who seemed perfectly normal, though something about her story seemed suspicious. Checking with other pharmacies revealed her obtaining her drug of choice with slightly different names at about 15 different places.
Wehling said spending $1 on prevention can result in $10 of savings in treatment and other societal problems.
But society, with limited resources, has cut back on prevention efforts.
All parties at the meeting agreed that one measure that would go a long way in tackling the problem would be an integrated prescription drug data base that involved all pharmacies. It would be a simple matter to check by computer whether the person looking to fill prescriptions at multiple locations was receiving more of the drug than needed.
Having people show identification to receive prescriptions and drugs would help prevent the practice of the same person using different names to get prescriptions.
But it would also go a long way for people to be vigilant about their own supply of drugs, keeping them out of the hands of people for whom they were not intended, getting help for those who need it, and reporting suspicious activity.
Prescription drug abuse is a growing problem, and not one law enforcement can solve on its own.