Tuesday, June 30, 2015

TOP STORY >> Fighting abuse of prescription drugs

Leader staff writer

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series examining illicit drug use in the area.

Prescription-drug abuse rates here are trending downward, according to local law-enforcement officials, but the problem is still prevalent, sometimes deadly and being combated in numerous ways.

Those include semi-annual drug takeback events, drop boxes at police departments, public-education programs, training classes for officers, a special investigative unit in Sherwood and initiatives like the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Operation Pilluted.

The DEA, with help from agencies in The Leader’s coverage area, recently netted 50 felony arrest warrants in the pending case against a Little Rock doctor accused of writing fraudulent prescriptions.

Steve Varady, program manager for the state drug director’s office, said prescription- drug abuse had dropped about 3 percent over the last five years among 92 percent of public high school students who participated in the Arkansas Prevention Needs Assessment Survey.

The state report for 2014 hasn’t been published yet, he clarified, but it may show prescription-drug abuse figures hitting a plateau after steadily decreasing over the last few years.

In Lonoke County, the lifetime use rates for sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th graders were 11.9 percent in 2011-12, 8.4 percent in 2012-13, 7.8 percent in 2013-14 and 8.8 percent in 2014-15, according to the survey.

For Pulaski County, they were 9.8 percent in 2011-12, 7.8 percent in 2012-13, 7.3 percent in 2013-14 and 7.6 percent in 2014-15.

Although Varady couldn’t provide figures related to deaths by overdoses, he said, “It’s heartbreaking” to hear of them. “It’s real Arkansas families and real people.”

To combat this issue, Varady noted, the state has advocated for legislation, like a bill passed this year that expands access to a nasal spray which can stop an overdose in progress.

Capt. Carl Minden of the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office said Arkansas was once No. 1 in the U.S. for prescription-drug abuse, but he thinks it’s done better in the national rankings since then.

Lonoke County Sheriff John Staley said that was in 2007, but — citing the survey — rates in past 30-day and lifetime measures have dropped significantly in the last five years.

Jacksonville Police Chief Kenny Boyd and several other agencies provided their own figures showing how prevalent prescription-drug abuse is in their areas.

He wrote in an email to The Leader that his department conducted 14 undercover buys of prescription pills in 2012. They had two buys in 2014 and 12 as of May 2015.

Cabot police arrested 35 people last year for misdemeanor and felony possession of prescription medications, according to Sgt. Keith Graham. In 2014, there were five deaths — three suicides and two others where the person was attempting to get high — in which prescription medications were a factor, he added.

Boyd said, according to the Centers for Disease Control website, 44 people nationwide die each day from overdosing on prescription painkillers, nearly two million Americans abused them in 2013 and almost 7,000 are treated by emergency rooms each day for using them incorrectly.

Staley said that in 2012, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported there were 6.8 million pill poppers. In 2011, he continued, 2.38 million of the 4.024 million prescriptions written were for narcotic analgesics and 136 million of those were for Hydrocodone.

Minden said the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t track deaths by prescription drugs, but he remembered the coroner calling in about 30 teen overdoses one year.

Staley said, nationally, one person dies every 14 minutes from overdosing on a prescription.

Pills are abused because people can easily access them and don’t realize how dangerous they can be, according to law-enforcement agencies in Pulaski and Lonoke counties.

Staley said, “Kids believe the drugs are safe because they’re manufactured in a factory with people with white coats.”

Graham added, “You can walk into any home in any neighborhood and you will find them.”

Lt. Jamie Michaels of the Sherwood Police Department pointed out, too, that pills can cost less than other drugs at first and that many are highly addictive, being opiate-based.

Boyd said some suspects he’d interviewed became addicted while they were legally prescribed pills after a surgery or to treat another condition.

Others succumbed to peer pressure or became addicted early on while growing up in a home where drug abuse was prevalent, he noted.

The Jacksonville chief said pills are readily available to young adults and children from their parents’ and grandparents’ medicine cabinets. Getting drugs that way and for free can be more appealing than purchasing them from a dealer on the streets, he said.

The sheriffs and representatives from local police departments generally agreed that people who take pills to get high come from all walks of life. It affects every demographic group and socio-economic class, they told The Leader.

But Minden, with the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office, said it’s primarily teens who abuse prescription drugs, while the Lonoke County sheriff said most abusers are 35 or younger.

Graham, with the Cabot Police Department, also said its officers tend to arrest more people in that age group for prescription drug-related charges.

Michaels, with the Sherwood Police Department, added, “People at the crest of their careers have fallen into it.”

No one The Leader spoke with seemed certain when prescription drug abuse became prevalent, but most claimed it was the 1990s and early 2000s.

Staley said, in early 2010, a coalition lead by the state drug director and other officials launched the “Monitor, Secure and Dispose” campaign that coordinated Arkansas’ participation in the DEA’s National Take-Back Initiative. In the 10 events held since 2010, 72.26 tons of unwanted/unused medications have been turned over for safe disposal in Arkansas, the Lonoke County sheriff noted.

Graham said pills have always been around but are being prescribed more often. “People can go to the doctor and say certain things and get pretty much anything prescribed.”

People who sell pills are also from all different backgrounds, law enforcement officials agreed.

Staley elaborated, “What we’ve seen in Lonoke County is the same people dealing illicit drugs are the same people selling prescription medication.”

The Jacksonville police chief said, for the most part, people sell them for the money. Even professionals — doctors, nurses, pharmacists — with access have done so, Boyd noted.

He said some people sell medications legally prescribed to them, and others have pills stolen by people they live with or others who are allowed into their homes.

People who break into vehicles, houses and businesses may also find pills and sell them, Boyd noted.

Agencies have begun to look at where prescription drugs are coming from, he told The Leader.

Staley agreed. His deputies are using tools to identify the “easy writers” of prescriptions and working closely with pharmacists so they feel comfortable in reporting people who send up red flags.

Jacksonville officers find pills by knocking on doors following tips, during traffic stops, by frequenting the house of someone who was reportedly selling them and using undercover cops to buy the pills from a suspect, who is then arrested, according to the chief.

“We also follow up if they are selling narcotics from a residence with the nuisance- abatement aspect of the law and work on evicting them from the property to clean up neighborhoods,” Boyd added.

Of the 35 charges related to prescription-drug abuse, only two are misdemeanor offenses that come with a minimum fine of $1,000 and up to one year in jail.

For felony possession, depending on the amount and type of pills found, penalties were a $1,500 fine with up to six years in prison; a $2,000 fine with three to 10 years; and a $2,500 fine with five to 20 years.

For purpose to deliver or delivery of prescription medications, also dependent on type and amount, the maximum penalty one could face a $25,000 fine and up to 40 years in prison for the most serious offense.

Local law-enforcement agencies are continuing to address prescription-drug abuse through free training classes offered by the Criminal Justice Institute, the Gulf Coast High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, the DEA, federal prosecutors and others.

Minden, with the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office, added that an annual conference is held and more training is available now than was available five years ago.

Graham said Cabot officers are invited to groups throughout the year to educate the public on prescription drug abuse. That police department also uses the PRIDE Program to teach younger generations about the dangers of it.