Although it may not get the attention given other illegal substances found on the streets, prescription drug abuse has been labeled an epidemic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The agency states prescription painkillers were involved in 14,800 overdose deaths nationally in 2008, which was more than those caused by cocaine and heroin combined. In Washington County, more than 50 deaths were attributed to drug-related overdose in 2011.
To tackle this problem locally, folks from the medical field, law enforcement, drug rehabilitation, education and local government held a prescription drug abuse summit Thursday at Canon-McMillan High School. Among the panel’s local officials were District Attorney Gene Vittone, First Assistant District Attorney Michael Lucas, Washington County Coroner Tim Warco and Canonsburg Mayor Dave Rhome.
“The prescription drug usage in this country had become an astronomical problem for us,” said Dr. Yesh Navalgund, a physician with the Pittsburgh-area DNA Advanced Pain Treatment Center.
According to Navalgund, drug overdose death rates have tripled nationally since 1990. In Pennsylvania, this rate is 15 per 100,000, and for every one death, there are 825 nonmedical users abusing prescription drugs, he said.
“When a disease is spreading like wildfire like this, we have to do something about it,” Navalgund said.
While the public may associate the drug trade with dark alleys and sketchy neighborhoods, Navalgund said more than 80 percent of painkiller abusers get the substances from doctors.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Kaufman gave an example of a doctor-turned-drug-dealer as he detailed the cause of Peters Township doctor Oliver Herndon, who was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison in September for prescribing thousands of pain pills to patients who didn’t need them.
He said the Stanford-educated physician transformed his successful practice into a hub of drug distribution for reasons that amounted to “nothing more than pure greed.”
While Herndon’s case is an extreme example, there are plenty of people who never intended to become addicts, but began abusing prescription drugs given to them after an accident or illness, according to Washington Drug and Alcohol Commission Executive Director Cheryl Andrews. She said her organization’s philosophy is to invest in lives and get people to fully commit to their treatment.
“You’re going to see people from all walks of life that abuse prescription drugs,” said Stephanie Henson, an intelligence analyst for the Drug Enforcement Administration. “There is no stereotype you can apply to the abusers of these drugs.”
She advised parents to talk to their children about prescription drugs like they do with those found on the street.
One person who never got that parental guidance was a young woman named Ashley, who shared her personal experience. She said she took her first Oxycotin at the 13 and did cocaine for the first time in eighth grade during study hall. By the time she was 20, she was a homeless heroin and crack user. After her family stopped bailing her out and ostracized her, she eventually found to courage to seek help and was given a second chance, crediting a halfway house in Washington County for saving her life.