A 'trendy and popular' problemWhen Jim Buechler became a pharmacist 33 years ago, cases of prescription drug abuse were rare, with one to two reported cases surfacing a year. It was almost unheard of for teenagers to be involved. “When they started looking for illegal drugs in my day, it was marijuana and alcohol. There was little to no abuse of medications and definitely no resale of prescription drugs,” said Buechler, owner of the Medicine Shoppe in Mitchell.
By: Austin Kaus, The Daily Republic
When Jim Buechler became a pharmacist 33 years ago, cases of prescription drug abuse were rare, with one to two reported cases surfacing a year.
It was almost unheard of for teenagers to be involved.
“When they started looking for illegal drugs in my day, it was marijuana and alcohol. There was little to no abuse of medications and definitely no resale of prescription drugs,” said Buechler, owner of the Medicine Shoppe in Mitchell.
“Now, it’s rather trendy and popular. The access is there to use and abuse prescription drugs.”
Pharmacists, addiction counselors and police admit that prescription-drug abuse among both children and adults is a widespread and ever-shifting problem. While arrest numbers in the state are not following a clear growth path, the war against the possession, ingestion, reselling and, in some cases, theft of prescription drugs continues.
Recent activity has included the Legislature’s adoption last winter of a prescription-drug monitoring program, and the inception of a local prescription drug lock-box project.
Some of the prescription drugs being abused most often include pain-relievers such as hydrocodone and oxycontin. Stimulants prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), such as Ritalin and Adderall, also are abused. Some take them for increased alertness and focus, while others simply are searching for a high similar to that gained from other amphetamines.
While the number of prescription drug arrests both locally and statewide has generally decreased in recent years, the numbers are still far higher than a decade ago.
In state fiscal year 2000, the reported number of arrests for unauthorized possession of a controlled substance was 1,026. By fiscal year 2005, the number jumped to 2,589. The fiscal year 2009 numbers showed 1,576 arrests.
Lt. Don Everson, of the Mitchell Department of Public Safety, was unable to provide arrest numbers for the city of Mitchell, but he said the number of people who “doctor shop” — obtain extra prescription drugs by obtaining prescriptions from multiple doctors — or steal medications is a problem in the city.
“We’ve had people go to rummage sales and ask to use the bathroom,” Everson said. “While they’re in the bathroom, they’re going through the medicine cabinet.”
He’s also concerned about teenagers who raid their home medicine cabinets and then take the goods to “pill parties,” where teens exchange and ingest prescription medication.
“Some teenagers view prescription drugs as being less harmful than street drugs,” Everson said. “It’s really dangerous.”
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that abuse of stimulants, like those prescribed for ADHD, can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms and a risk of overdose that could lead to death, especially when combined with other medications or alcohol. Abuse of drugs like hydrocodone and oxycontin also carries with it a high risk for addiction and overdose.
Few know the dangers of prescription drugs better than Wade Juracek. After taking painkillers to treat an inflammatory disease of the intestines, he developed an addiction to painkillers that led him to take as many as 100 Vicodin pills a day. He was convicted last year of three felony counts of obtaining/possessing a drug by theft, misrepresentation, forgery or fraud and resigned his position as mayor of Gregory.
Now clean, sober and happy, Juracek is using his experience to both spread awareness of prescription-drug abuse and support stronger rules to lower the chances of others developing their own addictions.
“I think when people think of an addict, they think of some junkie lying in the street or somebody shooting up,” Juracek said. “It can happen to anybody. There are lawyers, doctors, pastors and priests that struggle.”
In March, Juracek testified in favor of state legislation designed to create a prescription-drug monitoring program. The bill, which passed and will take effect on July 1, will create a statewide central repository to which pharmacists will submit information about each prescription for a controlled substance.
Although the bill passed, Juracek’s work to raise awareness about prescription drug addiction isn’t over. Next month, he plans to speak at the South Dakota Pharmacists Association’s annual convention in Chamberlain. He’s also encouraging communities to install prescription drug disposal boxes where unused or expired medication can be safely disposed of before it falls into the hands of potential abusers. In Mitchell, a box was recently installed in the lobby of the Davison County Sheriff’s Office, and more are expected to be installed in Hanson, Sanborn and Aurora counties.
Juracek said he’s learned a lot in a year, and he’s grateful that he can share his experience with others in the name of awareness and education.
“Treatment saved my life,” Juracek said. “I’m back to exactly the same person I was before any of this happened.”
At Dakota Counseling Institute in Mitchell, Brenda Davenport sees a steady number of drug addicts come through her doors looking for treatment to help them put their addiction behind them and move forward with their life.
The substances those patients are struggling with differ as time goes by.
“They tend to run in streaks,” said Davenport, a certified nurse practitioner in psychiatry. “One month I’m struggling with everyone abusing benzodiazepines (a group of sedatives that includes Librium and Valium). In three months, I’m looking at everybody trying to be put on ADHD drugs as stimulants.”
Davenport said that doctors tend to grow more cautious about prescribing certain drugs after learning that abuse is occurring. After seeing numerous cases of prescription drug abuse, Davenport herself admits she has become more cautious about what she prescribes.
At the institute, Davenport said she generally will not allow refills on any prescription drug without personal approval.
She is “loving” the new law that will create a prescription-drug monitoring program, but still would like to see more support from family and friends of those who acknowledge their drug problems.
“When a patient comes into my office and they’re struggling with symptoms, I’d like to have a lot more family around them to talk about how the addiction affects them as opposed to the person who comes in with no family to tell me what their opinion is.”