Prescription Drug Deaths Down Again in San Diego

The youngest was 18 years old. The oldest was 89. 

They were two of the 244 people who died from prescription drug overdoses in the San Diego area last year, according to the County’s 2015 Prescription Drug Abuse Report Card.

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The report card also shows that prescription drug deaths in the region dropped by 6 percent, from 259 in 2013 to 244 last year.

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“Last year was the second year in a row that prescription drug-related deaths dropped, and that is great news,” said County Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Dave Roberts at a news conference for the release of the report card Wednesday. “We hope this trend continues since the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs is having serious consequences for residents of all ages in our communities.”

In addition to deaths, the report card tracks other indicators of prescription drug abuse in the region. It also shows the following:

  • There were 5,723 visits to local emergency rooms because of prescription drugs in 2013, compared to 3,791 in 2012.
  • Percent of 11th graders reporting prescription drug abuse dropped (19.6 percent in 2011 vs. 17 percent in 2013).
  • Percent of adults seeking treatment for painkiller addiction remained the same (4.5 percent in 2013 vs. 4.5 percent in 2014).
  • Percent of adults arrested who reported misusing prescription drugs dropped (from 43 percent in 2013 to 39 percent in 2014).
  • Percent of juvenile arrestees who reported abusing prescription drugs stayed the same at 37 percent.
  • Pharmacy store burglaries and robberies increased by 60 percent (5 vs. 8).
  • Prosecutions of prescription drug fraud dropped by 31 percent (311 vs. 214).

“The percentage of juvenile arrestees who reported misusing prescription drugs continues to be a problem, but we’ve seen a slight decrease in the past few years,” said San Diego Sheriff’s Commander Todd Frank. “Another problem related to prescription drugs is that when people can no longer afford them, they steal them, including from pharmacies.”

The San Diego County District Attorney continues to aggressively prosecute criminals who commit fraud or other crimes related to prescription drugs.

“Our stance on drug prosecution and prevention remains a top priority,” District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said. “We’re happy to see a drop in fraud-related prescription drugs cases, but with more than 1,000 criminal cases that involve prescription drugs filed each year, we can’t afford to take our focus off this important issue.”

The County and its multiple partners have been addressing the prescription drug abuse problem in the region for several years. In 2008, the County Board of Supervisors established the Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force, which includes the County Sheriff’s Department, the District Attorney, the Health and Human Services Agency, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and multiple other law enforcement, treatment and prevention organizations.

The group has achieved made progress, but prescription drug misuse and abuse continues to be a problem in some areas, especially the painkillers’ link to growing heroin use. Prescription drug abusers often wind up turning to heroin as a cheaper alternative. The Report Card also provides some highlights on the impact heroin is having in the region. Comparing 2013 with 2014:

  • Deaths from heroin jumped 22 percent, from 86 to 105.
  • The percent of people entering treatment due to heroin increased from 24.8 to 27.7 percent.
  • The percentage of adult arrestees who tested positive for heroin rose from 12 to 13 percent.

“As soon as we started tracking prescription drug abuse, we noticed that it is fueling an increase in heroin abuse, leading to more deaths and more people seeking treatment,” said Health and Human Services Agency Director Macchione, adding that preventing drug abuse and getting people into treatment is one of the goals of the County’s Live Well San Diego vision.

The County funds prevention and treatment services throughout the region. Treatment is available by calling the County’s Access and Crisis Line at (888) 724-7240.

Since the safe disposal and collection of prescription drugs started in 2010, San Diegans have turned in nearly 120,000 pounds of prescription drugs. That is nearly 60 tons. The next Prescription Take Back Day is Saturday, Sept. 26.

“I urge San Diego County residents to keep dropping off their unused prescription drugs and help us keep them from ending up on the streets or in the wrong hands,” Macchione added.

The Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force and its many members will continue gathering data to monitor trends and the effectiveness of their combined efforts.

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.

José A. Álvarez is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact