With the New Year upon us we have available to us some new figures on prescription drug abuse and heroin addiction. The Centers for Disease Control reports an all-time new high—no pun intended—of overdoses from prescription drug abuse in the United States in 2014. 47,055 to be exact. In light of these startling statistics, some states like Georgia, are taking a proactive approach at preventing prescription drug abuse.
A Frightening Amount of Increase
The CDC statistic represents an increase in such deaths of 137 percent from all drug overdoses. The more alarming statistic demonstrates that prescription medication abuse and heroin deaths have increased 200 percent. Keep in mind, 200 percent means that the deaths have more than doubled—people often have trouble wrapping their heads around percentage increases. But in basic terms, the CDC tells us that in 2000 there were 6.2 deaths per 100,000 people, and in 2014 there were 14.7 deaths per 100,000 people.
Not all of prescription drug abuse involves opiates—there are people who take amphetamines or benzodiazepines—but over 61 percent of the deaths occurred from taking heroin or opiate pain pills. Deaths from oxycodone and hydrocodone rose by 9 percent, an increase greater than that of other opiate drugs.
There was also a major increase in the abuse of fentanyl. Previously, abuse of fentanyl most often involved chewing pain patches—think of Grandma’s Duragesic patches. But in 2014 and continuing into 2015, officials in counties all over the nation reported alarming increases in opiate-related deaths because heroin had been cut with fentanyl. Considering that fentanyl is about ten times stronger than morphine, it has been a dangerous game for anybody using heroin, not knowing what and how much of other substances it might contain.
Even the prescription drug abuse deaths involving benzodiazepines carry implications for people battling opiate addiction because many of them take benzodiazepines with their opiates. While about 37 percent of emergency department visits involved the use of benzodiazepines only, at least 20 percent of them represented people who had taken both benzodiazepines and opiates.
Where are the most deaths taking place? If you live in Ohio, West Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire, or Kentucky, you are at the greatest risk. However, there were sharp increases over prior years’ statistics in places including Georgia, Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Maine, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, and North Dakota.
Georgia Prescription Drug Abuse Initiative
The people who battle prescription drug abuse do not always fit the stereotypical image of an addict. The Georgia Prescription Drug Abuse Initiative tells us that anyone can fall victim to it when they find the pills in the family medicine cabinet, left there by another family member who has a legitimate need for the medication. Based on their work and in partnership with the Georgia Medical Association Foundation, volunteers are working in the offices from which prescription drugs are mailed and inserting flyers into packages alerting people that they have a responsibility to watch over their supply of prescription drugs.
Prescription drug abuse in Georgia affected one of these volunteers personally, an elderly man whose grandson got into the family medicine cabinet and became addicted to pain pills. The grandson entered a drug treatment program but ultimately he relapsed and died.
And so the Georgia Prescription Drug Abuse Initiative urges us to take responsibility for monitoring our drugs. Additionally, both prescribers and pharmacists can monitor them through the state’s prescription drug monitoring program that indicates if someone is getting multiple opiate drug prescriptions from multiple prescribers.
We also have an obligation to become educated about prescription drug abuse, insists the Georgia Prescription Drug Abuse Initiative paper on Four Priority Areas. Whether you are abusing drugs, or if you are prescribing them, or if you live in a household with an addict—you have a responsibility to become educated about the drugs the person is taking and the best ways to treat them. For example, substance abuse treatment can vary whether the person has chosen alcohol, opiates, cocaine, or something else for their drug of choice. More opiate addicts have success with methadone or buprenorphine treatment, while alcoholics are making headway in Vivitrol programs.
Next, we’ve got to dispose of unused medications properly. For a while nobody ever threw out unused medications because—geez, what if we needed them again? Why should we throw out pills that we paid good money for? But leaving them in medicine cabinets just puts them in easy reach of abusers, whether they’re opiates, amphetamines, or benzodiazepines.
Enforcement is also a responsibility of everyone, according to the Georgia Prescription Drug Abuse Initiative. If you know about pill mills operating in your neighborhood, call the police and let them know. If you have family members who are doctor shopping and getting multiple prescriptions from various prescribers, call their doctor’s office. The doctor’s staff cannot talk to you about the patient or even admit that they know them, but they will take note of your concern.
The Georgia Prescription Drug Abuse Initiative dedicates itself to prevention initiatives designed to reduce deaths from prescription drug abuse. These are just a few of its objectives:
- Georgia State University has been working on a needs assessment to identify the gaps in prescription drug abuse services that are available in the state.
- It plans to work with law enforcement officials and community leaders to promote appropriate medication disposal methods within communities—such as drug disposal days when people can drop off their unused medications.
- It already launched a state-wide campaign to educate both teens and their parents about the dangers of prescription drug abuse.
Thanks should go out to the Georgia Prescription Drug Abuse Initiative for its valuable advice and interesting website—visit it to learn about activities within the state, about elected officials fighting prescription drug abuse in Georgia, and the Medical Association of Georgia Foundation’s Think About It campaign. Your best chances of preventing prescription drug abuse is to become educated about it.
The CDC, like the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and other agencies, promotes harm reduction treatment for those involved in opiate prescription drug abuse. Harm reduction treatment includes the use of medications such as buprenorphine and methadone in the management of opiate drug withdrawal symptoms and cravings. If you are looking for treatment within your community, call a local treatment provider today to get more information.