Pubdate: Wed, 17 Mar 2010
Source: Asheville Citizen-Times (NC)
Copyright: 2010 Asheville Citizen-Times
Author: Josh Boatwright


Law enforcement agencies across Western North Carolina are hauling in
loads of drugs this week. Pills, patches and liquid doses are coming
in by the thousands.

The difference between this and most large drug operations is this one
doesn't involve informants, drawn weapons or jail time. The drug
holders are coming willingly.

Officers are sitting behind folding tables at police departments,
pharmacies and grocery stores across the state this week collecting
old or unneeded prescription and over-the-counter drugs from the
community as part of Operation Medicine Drop. Agencies have already
raked in tens of thousands of pills. An Asheville man who pleaded
guilty Monday to supplying methadone that killed his friend is the
latest example of a growing problem with prescription drug abuse that
has had a disproportionate impact on the western part of the state.

Most WNC counties have higher death rates caused by overdose or misuse
of medications than the rest of the state and teens here are more
likely to abuse them.

"The reality of it is it's so easily accessible, that's one of the
biggest problems. There's not a house in Macon County or any other in
the United States that doesn't have some kind of medicine in their
medicine cabinet" Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland said.

A leading cause of death Nearly 7 million Americans abuse prescription
drugs, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The number increased 80 percent from 2000 to 2006, with more people
abusing legal drugs than cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, ecstasy and
inhalants combined. Drug overdose is a leading cause of deaths from
unintentional injuries in North Carolina, followed only by vehicle
accidents, according to a recent report by the N.C. Division of Public

Unintentional poisoning, mostly tied to prescription drugs, has killed
more than 5,700 people in North Carolina since 1999, accounting for 17
percent of all injury deaths, according to the report.

 From 2005-07, the state had an average poisoning death rate of 10.1
per 100,000 people, but many WNC counties had rates above 18 per
100,000. N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper recently met with sheriffs
from several WNC counties in Bryson City to discuss the growing
prescription drug problem, but he said there's no data to explain
exactly why the region has a higher rate of overdose deaths.

Tamara Styles, an agent with the Buncombe County Anti-Crime Task
Force, said her drug unit has seen prescription fraud and abuse spike
in recent years with a caseload that vastly outweighs cocaine,
methamphetamine and marijuana combined. One explanation may be the
fact that WNC hasn't had a significant influx of heroin, forcing
opiate addicts to seek their fix in similar medications, Styles said.

Authorities in Macon County, where the death rate reached 29 per
100,000 from 2006-2008, joined several law enforcement agencies in WNC
and across the state last April in a one-day effort to collect
prescription drugs from the community.

Deputies and police raked in 28,000 pills in Macon and 128,000 across
the western region during the three-hour Operation Pill Crusher event.
That event's success inspired this week's effort, which includes more
than 180 events sponsored by agencies in 58 counties across the state.
Threat to the youth Getting dangerous medicines out of the hands of
teens and children is one of the main goals of this week's
collections. The latest Risk Behavior Survey done by the state
department of health and human services showed abuse of drugs like
hydrocodone and oxycontin is more prevalent among students in WNC than
in other parts of the state.

In WNC, 25 percent of high school students have used pharmaceuticals
recreationally at least once, according to an analysis of surveys done
by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. In the center and east of the
state that number was 17 percent. "One of the problems with young
people is that two-thirds of them get prescription drugs that they
abuse from either their own home or from friends who get it from their
homes," Cooper said. Sheriff David Mahoney sat at a folding table at
the Brevard Police Department on Sunday with Ricky McCall from the
narcotics task force counting approximately 3,000 pills, vials of
liquid opiates and other drugs. "The scary thing is kids are having
things called 'pharm parties' where they all bring pills and throw
them in a bowl," Mahoney said. They grab pills randomly and take them,
often with alcohol, he said. Nikolas Flores had been trading drugs
with his friend, Christopher Waters, during a party in Henderson
County before Waters overdosed on methadone and died. Flores, 20, now
faces jail time after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter in
the death of the 19-year-old Mills River man. Buncombe County deputies
gathered more than 13,000 pills ranging from antacids to painkillers
during a drop-off event Sunday and they expect to collect even more
through the end of the week.

Counties around the mountains are participating in the program. Most
law enforcement agencies are holding one-day events. 
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