County Releases First Prescription Drug Abuse Report Card

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A former abuser of prescription drugs describes her bout with addiction and how it nearly killed her.
July 9, 2012 | 12:49pm

Prescription drugs are killing more San Diegans than ever before, according to the County’s first Prescription Drug Abuse Report Card released today.

The report tracked a five-year period from 2007 to 2011. Last year, prescription drugs played a role in the deaths of 267 people, a 27 percent increase compared to 2007 when 211 deaths were reported. A total of 1,164 people have died due to prescription drugs in the last five years.

“Prescription drug abuse has become a serious problem in our county. Many young people and adults are abusing prescription drugs. And these drugs can be found at home,” said Supervisor Pam Slater-Price at a Monday news conference.

The report card, which includes nine indicators of prescription drug abuse in the region, also showed the following trends:

  • Emergency room visits due to opiates were up by 64 percent
  • Total students reporting prescription drug abuse increased (from 17 to 19.6 percent)
  • The number of juvenile and adult arrestees reporting prescription drug misuse also increased (from 33 to 37 percent and 40 to 41 percent respectively)
  • Number of robberies/burglaries to pharmacies also rose from 9 to 26 incidents, a whopping 188 percent increase.

“What the report card shows is alarming,” said Nick Macchione, director of the County Health and Human Services Agency. “The prescription drug problem isn’t a onetime phenomenon, but rather a growing problem with serious repercussions to quality of life in our region.”

Methadone, Oxycodone, Valium, Hydrocodone, Morphine, and – suddenly prominent in 2011 – Xanax or alprazolam, are the prescription drugs that are killing the most people. 

Pain medications, although effective and complication free for many people, can be highly addictive for others. They are also pricey, so when the addicted person can no longer afford them, some of them are turning to a cheaper alternative: heroin.

“We have seen the dangerous consequences of a higher number of people switching from prescription drugs to heroin,” said Dr. Jonathan Lucas, County Chief Deputy Medical Examiner.

In 2011, there were 80 deaths related to heroin; 15 of those were people younger than 25 years old. Besides alcohol, heroin was the most common intoxicant in those under 30 who died last year.

“The reality is that only a small number of people who abuse prescription drugs, die. Therefore, the problem is many times greater than what we are seeing,” Lucas said.

To address the growing prescription drug abuse problem, in 2008 Supervisor Slater-Price convened the Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force, which includes the County Sheriff’s Department, the District Attorney, HHSA, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and multiple other law enforcement, treatment and prevention organizations.

The Task Force has led to the arrest and prosecution of thousands of people on prescription drug fraud and other charges involving prescription drugs, including 1,411 last year.

Prescription drug take back events and collection boxes at all Sheriff’s stations and substations and some police departments have also netted nearly 29,000 pounds of unused drugs in the past two years.

“Preventing drug abuse and getting people into treatment is one of the goals of the County’s Live Well, San Diego! initiative,” added Macchione. “We all play a role in preventing prescription drug abuse. Remove unused medications from your home. Talk to your children, friends and neighbors about the dangers of abusing prescription drugs.”

People are also encouraged to report drug activity in their community to their local police department or sheriff’s station. They can also call Prescription Drug Hotline at (877) 662-6384.