Prescription pill abuse is a growing concern in North Huntingdon
At first glance, the prescription for the painkiller Oxycodone looked like many others that pass through Norwin Pharmacy.
It had a watermark embedded in the paper, a physician's name, and even the Drug Enforcement Administration number required to dispense controlled substances. But a pharmacist knew that while the 30-milligram tablets prescribed were safe for humans, the dosage would kill the dog for whom the prescription was written.
North Huntingdon police arrested the 27-year-old woman who they said had attempted to pass off the bogus prescription. She faces a preliminary hearing later this month on a felony charge of attempting to acquire a controlled substance.
Police say the recent case illustrates the growing concern about illegally obtained prescription painkillers.
Prescription drug abuse is “literally out of control — especially among people in their 30s, 40s and older,” said Det. Kirk Youngstead of the North Huntingdon police department. “While heroin use by younger people is still a big problem, many older drug users are afraid of heroin because they don't know what they're getting. With prescription narcotics, they know exactly what the drug is and the dosage.”
State lawmakers are considering legislation to help crack down on prescription drug crimes by creating a statewide monitoring system that, among other things, tracks the amount of prescription medication they prescribe. If approved, police would have access to a database containing the information that is being tracked.
“The database would give law enforcement another tool by allowing them to see things such as whether a doctor may be prescribing narcotics at a higher rate than normal, if someone is getting prescriptions from multiple physicians and whether prescriptions are being forged and filled at several pharmacies,” said Leo Ciaramitaro, a Westmoreland County assistant district attorney.
Youngstead, who is part of the state's Drug Task Force, said most of the drug investigations North Huntingdon conducted last year involve prescription narcotics.
“We handled about 400 prescription drug cases in 2013, which was an increase of about 75 percent over the previous year,” he said, adding that the number of such cases has been climbing since 2008.
Youngstead supports the creation of a statewide database.
“I think you'd see a decline in the abuse because now you're going to be identified,” he said.
Pennsylvania is one of 34 states that does not require the implementation of a drug monitoring program and one of 33 in the nation that do not require pharmacists to check identification before a prescription can be filled, according to a study released in October by the nonprofit Trust for America's Health based in Washington, D.C.
The increase in prescription drug cases in North Huntingdon mirrors a national problem, according to federal law enforcement officials.
The abuse of controlled prescriptions drugs such as pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants and sedatives “continues to be the nation's fastest growing drug problem,” according to the 2013 National Drug Threat Assessment Survey issued in November by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Nationally, 28 percent of the law enforcement agencies that participated in the annual survey reported that prescription drug abuse is their “greatest threat,” which is up from about 10 percent in 2009, according to the survey, which analyzed data on illicit drug trafficking and incidences of nonmedical use of controlled prescription drugs that were reported by law enforcement agencies. The study also included data on people seeking treatment for drug addiction.
Pennsylvania ranks 11th in the nation in overdoses from prescription narcotics, according to Centers for Disease Control.
State Attorney General Kathleen Kane supports measures such as the database to track the abuse of prescription narcotics, which investigators say are a “gateway” to heroin use.
Kane testified before the state House Judiciary Committee in November that prescription drug dependency becomes prohibitively expensive to maintain so abusers turn to heroin as an alternative that is cheaper and easier to get.
State Sen. Kim Ward, (R-Hempfield), who authored a Senate bill to create a prescription drug monitoring program, said the measure is not designed to make it harder for those who need the drugs.
If approved, Ward's measure — like others being proposed in the House — would require pharmacies to enter prescription information into a database within seven days that includes a doctor's name, the DEA number, the date the prescription was filled, the payment method, the quantity and strength of the drugs and the patient's name, age and birth date.
“You do not in any way want to impede the legitimate dispensing of medications for people who are very ill,” Ward said. “The goal is to be able to track and cut down on (abuse) out there.”
Tony LaRussa is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-856-7400, ext. 8626, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Amanda Dolasinski contributed to this story.