ROCKINGHAM — With a nationwide epidemic stemming from prescription medicine abuse, Richmond County has been no different. On Wednesday, healthcare professionals, therapists, social workers and community members gathered for a workshop to understand what’s happening, what’s being done and what to look for.
“It’s becoming more prevalent across the state that prescription medicine abuse is becoming an epidemic,” said Emily Nicholson with Alcohol and Drug Services. “Youth can purchase drugs from China online using credit cards. The more pure the drug is, the more potential for overdose.”
First, Nicholson outlined a few facts about prescription drug abuse:
• An estimated 52 million people have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons;
• 1.2 million emergency room visits are related to non-medical use of prescription drugs;
• Nearly 2 million Americans are abusing prescription opioids;
• 16,000 people die every year from prescription opioid overdoses;
• 259 million opioid prescriptions were written in 2012, enough for every American adult to have their own bottle of pills;
• Opioid abuse costs the U.S. economy nearly $56 billion;
• Opioid abuse costs employers approximately $10 billion from absenteeism alone;
The most commonly abused prescription drugs are opioids such as hydrocodone, Vicodin and morphine and are normally prescribed to treat pain. Central nervous system depressants used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders like Valium and Xanax come in second, and stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder rank third on the list.
Abuse of prescription drugs is highest among young adults aged 18 to 25, said Nicholson, and she’s found in her research that youth who abuse medicine are more likely to report use of other drugs, higher rates of cigarette smoking and heavy episodic drinking. She added that 65 percent of teens report getting pain relievers from family members and friends.
“The holidays are coming up, so we need to educate our elderly how to safely secure their medication,” Nicholson said. “Be aware of the people you have in your home. Be aware of people’s behavior and signs of abuse.”
But prescription drug abuse isn’t just found in younger people and can range from millennials to baby boomers.
“Older patients are more likely to be prescribed long-term and multiple prescriptions, and some experience cognitive decline, which could lead to improper use of medications,” said Nicholson. “With baby boomers, it’s kind of difficult with them being on a fixed income. They keep their medication.”
Nicholson handed out a map that listed the top 25 cities based on abuse rate by The Opioid Crisis — 22 of which are located in southern states. Checking in at No. 1 is Wilmington where the rate is 11.6 percent. Also in North Carolina are Hickory at No. 5, Jacksonville at No. 12 and Fayetteville at 18. With the latter two being host cities for large military bases, Nicholson wondered if a rise in abuse from servicemen and women is the cause for the spike.
Meanwhile in Hickory, she said the city saw a 500 percent jump in deaths due to fentanyl-laced heroin.
As numbers climb regarding abuse and overdoses, the question becomes what can be done?
Besides locking up medications, Nicholson suggests disposing of old prescriptions that are no longer being taken. For instance, if medications are liquid they can be poured into cat litter or sawdust, absorbed and then put into a plastic bag to be thrown away. If medications are in pill form, they can be put into a water bottle to dissolve and then into cat litter. She also recommends not flushing them down the toilet and crossing out information on empty pill bottles.
The Rockingham and Hamlet police departments, as well as the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, also have boxes for residents to discard unused medications.
Another potential solution, she added, is using databases to help cut down on “doctor shopping,” the act of one person going to multiple doctors in one or more counties to obtain prescription drugs.
“It’s very important for physicians, pharmacists and law enforcement to communicate,” said Nicholson.
On the streets, when medicine becomes available for purchase, prices can range anywhere from $5 to $75 a pill depending on milligrams, according to Detective Sgt. Ty Rucker with the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office. Working in vice narcotics for the last six years, Rucker said the drugs of choice when he started were crack cocaine and marijuana.
“Since then it’s been pills. We’re getting heroin in the county now,” he said. “They go from pills to heroin because it’s cheaper.”
In a simple case of supply and demand, when detectives bust a dealer selling pills in bulk, the price tends to go up because of a lack of medicine. Because of this, more and more prescription drug abusers are turning to heroin.
“I used to be surprised, but now it don’t surprise me,” Rucker said about pills and heroin flooding the streets. “It’s not New York. They have it, then we have it here.”
Nicholson said in looking for abuse, signs to be aware of include stealing medications, mood swings, irritability and hostility, poor judgement, stealing or other illegal behavior and lying.
Prevention, however, is also on the rise on a local and national level with educational initiatives delivered in schools and community settings such as Wednesday’s workshop. Nicholson said that those suffering from the world of prescription drug abuse can always get help, but they have to want it.
“Addiction is a disease that can be cured,” she said. “If the addicted want to be cured.”
Reach reporter Matt Harrelson at 910-817-2674 and follow him on Twitter @mattyharrelson.