Over Prescribed: A Taking Action Investigation
Prosecutors, physicians, and police agree. Prescription drug abuse has become an epidemic.
Those officials want to remind you that just because the pills are FDA approved and regulated, it doesn’t make them safer to abuse than illegal drugs.
Marshall County Assistant District Attorney Mitch Floyd said Department of Justice statistics show the majority of teens wanting to get high for the first time turn to pharmaceuticals.
“For as long as they’ve kept those numbers, marijuana has been the gateway drug,” Floyd said.
“In 2010, for the first time, non-medical use of prescription pills surpassed marijuana as the gateway drug.”
Floyd oversees the Marshall County Drug Enforcement Unit and will see drug cases from behind the bench this fall, after being elected district judge earlier this year.
His worry is pill users think the medicine is safe, but what is supposed to make people better can have the opposite effect when abused.
“In 2010, more people died from non-medical use of prescription pills than from overdoses due to meth, heroin, and cocaine combined,” he said.
Last month, Arab paramedics responded to an emergency overdose where a woman consumed dozens of Lortab and Xanax pills.
“That’s a massive amount of controlled substance,” Floyd said.
“Obviously I don’t think that would have come legally through prescriptions but we do see doctor shopping.”
That is where people visit multiple doctors to obtain multiple prescriptions for controlled substance narcotics like Lortab, Xanax, and Hydrocodone.
Emergency room doctor Stuart Foley said it can be difficult for doctors to know which patients are doing that, and who is being honest about their pain and their needs.
“We are oftentimes confined to the patient telling us the truth,” Foley said.
“So it’s a tough area, and it’s a problem that we deal with.”
The hospital where he works will not refill several types of prescription medications.
Foley said he sees firsthand the after-effects of some of these drugs while helping out at a local drug rehabilitation center, and said some physicians played a part in the pill problem.
In 1989, there were about 1.5 billion prescriptions written for patients in the United States.
That number rose to about 4 billion in 2010.
That is an average of 13 prescriptions per American, up from six per person two decades earlier.
Foley said that can be an ongoing and growing problem as opiates are habit-forming.
“You will become dependant on them physiologically, and you will need more, and more, and more, to achieve the desired effect,” Foley said.
If abusers can’t get their drugs from a doctor, there are two main alternatives.
The first is to find a dealer, but the black market cost can be much higher than the pharmacy price.
Drug investigators said a single Lortab often runs five to 10 dollars on the street.
Madison Police investigator Terrell Cook said that contributes to burglaries.
“We’ll ask [suspects], ‘what have you done with the things you’ve stolen?’,” Cook said.
“Most of the time they’ve traded them for money so that they can support a drug habit, and more often than none it’s prescription pills.”
The second option, which is more common, is to find pills.
Floyd said the majority of people abusing pills do not have to look for a drug dealer.
“70 percent of cases that are made that involve prescription pills, the perpetrator acquired those pills at home, out of a medicine cabinet of a parent, family member, or friend,” Floyd said.
Pills are also taken as part of burglaries.
Officer Cook said abusers will look for any pill bottle with warning labels.
“Do not operate around heavy machinery, drive, or this may cause drowsiness, those are things that when taken in excess or abused can cause someone to get high, and those are the things that we see stolen a lot,” Cook said.
The legal sellers of prescription drugs are also victims.
Marshall County Drug Enforcement Unit Commander David Chandler showed WHNT News 19 a small quantity of items seized from a suspect accused of stealing and dealing prescription drugs.
“These are pills that are from one box of eight boxes that are involved in a theft from a pharmacy in Marshall County.”
“One out of eight boxes, and this is just part of the pills out of one box.”
Chandler said the thief took a few bottles at a time, gradually building a personal pharmacy of controlled substances.
“The subject that was stealing these bottles was selling them by the bottle to individuals, and then those people would break them down and sell them further,” he said.
All the investigators we talked to said pill abusers often take them with other drugs.
Floyd said sometimes people use meth and then prescription drugs as the high starts to wear off.
Others mix them with alcohol, despite many warning labels.
“Taking a handful of those pills to achieve a high on top of several alcoholic drinks, is enough to suppress respiratory drive and have that patient slip off and die,” Foley said.
Chemicals from pills flushed down the drain can enter the water supply, so many law enforcement agencies offer collections at least once a year.
They take the prescription drugs to an EPA certified facility for burning.
That also ensures your pills do not fall into the wrong hands.