Pubdate: Sun, 21 Jun 2009
Source: Winston-Salem Journal (NC)
Copyright: 2009 Piedmont Publishing Co. Inc.


A heartbreaking trend in this country's never-ending drug problem is
playing out in Northwest North Carolina. Prescription-drug deaths, as
well as prescription-drug abuse and crime, are rising in rural counties.

More organizations and individuals should join law-enforcement
officers and confront the problem before its human and financial costs
spiral. "It's unbelievable how bad this is," Donna Reeves of Wilkes
County recently told the Journal's Monte Mitchell. Her 20-year-old
daughter, Casey, was one of 18 people who died in Wilkes County in
2006 of a prescription-drug overdose. There were more than 22
"unintentional poisonings," a state category made up mostly of
prescription-drug deaths, per 100,000 people in parts of the mountains
and foothills in 2006-2007, compared with 10 deaths per 100,000 in the
rest of the state.

Law-enforcement officers such as Wilkes Sheriff Dane Mastin, who has
seen too many overdoses and too much drug abuse, hope that the deaths
will be a clarion call for action.

Confronting the problem is straining local law-enforcement agencies
already pressed by the recession.

Many of these agencies probably won't get much help from the state's
flawed mental-health-care system.

They will need assistance from groups such as a Wilkes task force that
is already engaged in this tough fight.

Prescription-drug abuse is an old problem on a resurgence. The drugs
being abused now are opiate-derived painkillers such as Oxycodone,
which includes such forms as OxyContin, Percocet and Percodan; as well
as hydrocodone, sold under trademarks that include Vicodin.

There's been a prescription-drug overdose death, or suspected overdose
death, almost every week so far this year in Wilkes County. That means
that the county could double the 26 prescription overdose deaths it
had last year, a figure that already ranked Wilkes as having one of
the country's highest per-capita death rates from prescription-drug
abuse. The deaths are the most jarring part of a problem that includes
non-lethal overdoses and crime.

In Wilkes, abuse of prescription drugs is leading to an increase in
break-ins and home invasions, Mastin said. Some abusers have stolen
drugs from elderly relatives, some of whom have gone so far as to hide
their drugs in their underwear.

Sheriff Graham Atkinson of Surry County said that some victims are
reluctant to press charges against family members. Mastin said that
several residents, particularly the elderly, have sold their
prescription drugs -- a crime that's hard to prosecute. "Who's going
to put them in jail, walking into court with a cane and having chronic
health problems?" he asked.

Even though there's an arsenal of state and federal charges that can
be pressed against those possessing unauthorized prescription drugs,
the problem is difficult because these drugs start out legally when
doctors prescribe them. Some patients "doctor shop," going from doctor
to doctor to accumulate a surplus of drugs.

These patients abuse the drugs themselves or sell or give them to

Officers say that many people think that prescription drugs aren't as
bad for them as illegal drugs such as cocaine and heroin. "Our
overdose calls are telling a much different story than that," Atkinson
said. The county has had more than 150 of those calls in the last
year, he said, several of which resulted in deaths.

Of the calls, many were prescription-drug overdoses. Mastin blames the
abuse partly on prescription-drug marketing, with its advertisements
that promise consumers that they can feel better by taking their product.

And heroin can be hard to find in rural counties, leading some people
to abuse prescription drugs instead.

The recession, job losses and related problems may be driving more
people toward drug abuse. And there are a lot of painkillers in
circulation that doctors have prescribed for people who work in
chicken plants, on farms and at other forms of manual labor.

But this problem is not confined to people of modest means. Officers
say that prescription drugs are being abused by people of all
socioeconomic backgrounds, including high-school and college students
who gather up pills from their parents' medicine cabinets and toss
them into bowls at parties for random consumption.

Some people are fighting back. Law-enforcement officers from Burke,
Wilkes, Surry, Guilford, Yadkin, Ashe, Watauga and Stokes counties
recently joined State Bureau of Investigation agents at a seminar
about the problem.

Wilkes County and its Substance Abuse Task Force have been working on
the problem for several years, and will soon introduce an educational
program that warns about the dangers of prescription-drug abuse.

The task force is also trying to persuade doctors to sign up for the
state's controlled-substance reporting system, which allows them to
access a database and see what narcotics a patient has already been

And the task force is working with Wilkes Regional Medical Center on a
policy to discourage prescribing narcotics in the emergency room. Hugh
Chatham Memorial Hospital in Elkin enacted a similar policy this year.
Churches, schools and more parents should help in the fight.

People should safely dispose of excess medication, instead of keeping
it in their homes. Wilkes County is working with the federal Drug
Enforcement Agency to schedule drug turn-in days.

Many people may be slow to realize that their child, or their parent
or sibling, has a prescription-drug problem that can kill them.
"Everybody thinks ‘It can't happen to me', " said Donna Reeves, the
Wilkes County woman whose daughter died of an overdose.

Such denial is human nature.

It's past time for the people of Northwest North Carolina to join
forces and fight this deadly scourge. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr