Pubdate: Sun, 30 Mar 2003
Source: Johnson City Press (TN)
Copyright: 2003 Johnson City Press and Associated Press
Author: Robert Houk


ELIZABETHTON - Police here say they are arresting more drivers these days 
who are taking to the streets under the influence of prescription drugs.

Police Chief Roger Deal said abuse of drugs like methadone and Lortab is on 
the rise in Elizabethton, and the consequences are sometimes deadly. Deal 
said drivers charged in two separate accidents on West Elk Avenue last year 
were under the influence of methadone and other drugs.

The first accident, which occurred in August, resulted in the death of a 
35-year-old woman who police say was struck head-on by a driver who was 
found to have evidence of Diazepam and methadone in his system. Joshua 
David Whitehead, 227 Centerville Drive, Elizabethton, was bound over to a 
Carter County grand jury earlier this month to face charges of vehicular 
homicide in that case.

A second drug-related accident on West Elk Avenue followed in October when 
a driver who police say was under the influence of methadone set off a 
chain of events that left a truck loaded with propane on its side near 
Sycamore Shoals Hospital. That accident resulted in a tedious, day-long 
cleanup of the volatile propane and sent a 16-year-old passenger to the 
hospital with serious injuries.

"I really can't tell you anything good about methadone," Deal said. "We've 
always had a problem with abuse of prescription drugs, but it seems to be 
getting worse with the ease of accessibility."

Deal said he fears many of those involved in methadone treatment may be 
"taking more than their daily dosages" or mixing their methadone with other 
drugs and alcohol before getting behind the wheel.

"If that is the case, they are a hazard to themselves and to the public," 
the chief said. "I don't know of any success stories involving methadone. 
They just trade heroin for methadone."

Not so, says an official at one regional methadone clinic. Mary Little, 
program director of the DRD Medical Clinic, Knoxville, said her facility 
closely monitors the dosages it gives to patients. She said state 
regulations also require methadone clinics in Tennessee to file annual 
progress reports on all patients that they treat.

"The idea is that we try to get them back to normal as soon as possible," 
she said. "They have to be able to function normally and go to school or 
work. If a patient decides to mix their methadone with other drugs or 
alcohol, then that is clearly out of our hands."

Little said some cases of abuse stem from physicians who over-prescribe 
methadone as a pain-management drug.

"We've had cases of doctors in Knoxville, Morristown and in the Tri-Cities 
who have sent patients home with a 30-day supply of methadone," she said. 
"It is time that physicians take some responsibility for the drug problem."

Methadone, Little said, is a synthetic drug used to treat patients addicted 
to "hard-core" opiate-based drugs. While the drug does not produce the 
euphoria associated with heroin, she said methadone has been found to ease 
cravings and withdrawal pains. That is one reason methadone has become a 
popular street drug.

"Addicts will steal or buy someone else's methadone because it takes the 
sickness away when they can't get the drug of their choice, such as Lortab 
or OxyContin," she said.

Just last week, the Carter County Sheriff's Department was called to a home 
in Hampton to investigate the theft of five 125-milligram bottles of 
methadone from a locked container.

- --- Time was when law enforcement officers could expect to make the bulk of 
their DUI arrests at night and on the weekend. Elizabethton Police Officer 
Mike Merritt, however, says that is no longer the case.

"Our daytime arrests for DUI are increasing, and it is amazing how many of 
them are prescription drug-related," Merritt said. "Usually, we find they 
(the drivers) have mixed their prescription drugs with other drugs and 
alcohol. It's absolutely unreal."

Prescription drug abuse is not limited to just the highways. Deal said his 
department has seen the number of cases of prescription drug thefts and 
prescription forgeries it is asked to investigate balloon in recent years.

"Prescription forgery is a problem in Elizabethton, since we are a major 
shopping district for the county," the chief said. "They come to town to 
try to pass forged prescriptions for everything from Valium to OxyContin 
and Lortab. Painkillers are very popular."

Deal said his department has been working with area pharmacies to help 
their employees spot and deal with forged prescriptions. In years past, he 
said, drug abusers would put prescription pads stolen from the examination 
rooms of physicians to fraudulent use.

Today, Deal said enterprising drug abusers are using computer-generated 
prescription forms to obtain controlled medication.

"It's very frustrating, from a law enforcement standpoint," the chief said. 
"Many of these people will forge prescriptions and turn around and sell 
them just to support their own drug habits."

Deal said drugs abusers can also obtain powerful pain medication legally by 
simply lying to their doctor.

"We've seen cases where people go to a number of different doctors to get 
prescription drugs," he said. "When they have a quantity, they sell them to 

Health care workers have become increasingly attuned to spotting patients 
who attempt to obtain narcotics by fraudulent means. Police officers were 
called to Sycamore Shoals Hospital on a number of occasions this month when 
emergency room physicians and nurses discovered patients were attempting to 
use false identifications to get prescription drugs.

The chief said such vigilance is one of the reasons that court dockets are 
full each week of cases involving prescription fraud.

"I sometimes think the legislative branch has become numb to the problem," 
Deal said.
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