Prescription Drug, Heroin Abuse on the Rise

Prescription drug and heroin use increased over the last five years, the latest County Prescription Drug Abuse Report Card revealed.

The report tracks nine indicators of prescription drug abuse in the region over a five-year period from 2008 to 2012. The report shows prescription drugs played a role in the deaths of 268 people, a 22 percent increase compared to 2008 when 220 deaths were reported. A total of 1,221 people have died due to prescription drugs in the last five years.

“It is very troubling to know so many young people and adults are abusing prescription drugs. The problem is that prescription drugs are easy to get. They are readily available in home medicine cabinets,” said Supervisor Dave Roberts at a Monday news conference.

“The misuse and abuse of prescription drugs is having serious consequences,” added Roberts who was joined by Sheriff Bill Gore, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) Director Nick Macchione and Bill Sherman, Special Agent in Charge, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration—San Diego Division.

The report card also showed the following:

  • Emergency room visits due to painkillers were up by 61 percent
  • Drug treatment admissions because of heroin increased from 18.5 to 23.1 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 25 to 40 percent and 36 to 38 percent respectively)

“The increasing number of juvenile arrestees who report misusing prescription drugs is very troubling,” said Sheriff Gore. “The percentage is 15 points higher than five years ago and that is worrisome.”

To address the growing prescription drug abuse problem, in 2008, the County Board of Supervisors established 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 1,311 last year.

“Drug cases make up the majority of our felony caseload at the DA’s Office,” District Attorney Dumanis said. “That’s why we’re aggressive in prosecuting these cases. Last year, our office handled 117 prescription drug fraud cases and more than 1,300 cases involving prescription drugs.”

Another very troubling issue the report card revealed is how prescription drug misuse is fueling an increase in heroin abuse.

Last year, 23.1 percent of people entering treatment was due to heroin abuse and 74 heroin deaths were reported. The number of adults who tested positive for heroin jumped from 7 to 11 percent over the past five years.

“What we believe is happening is that prescription drug users are turning to heroin when painkillers become harder to find or pay for. Heroin is easier to get and cheaper too,” said Macchione, adding that preventing drug abuse and getting people into treatment is one of the goals of the County’s Live Well San Diego initiative.

Prescription drug take back events and collection boxes at all Sheriff’s stations and substations and some police departments have also netted nearly 55,000 pounds of unused drugs in the past three years.

“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,” Macchione said.

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.


2013 Prescription Drug Abuse Report Card

Indicator 2008 2012 Change
Rx Deaths 220 268 +22%
ER Painkiller Discharges 2,040 3,278* +61%
Student Misuse 17%** 19.6% +2.6 percentage points
Adult Drug Treatment Admissions
Rx Painkillers 3.9% 4.7% +0.8 percentage points
Heroin 18.5% 23.1% +4.6 percentage points
Rx Misuse: Adult Arrestees 36% 38% +2 percentage points
Rx Misuse: Juvenile Arrests 25% 40% +15 percentage points
Rx Prosecutions
Rx Fraud Charge 112 117 +4%
Other Rx-related Charges 713 1,311 +84%
Pharmacy Robberies/Burglaries 9 8 -11%
Rx Pounds Safely Disposed 10,846*** 26,609 145%
 *2011 data   **2007 data   ***2010 data (when disposal program began)   



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