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Addiction 'epidemic' concerns Wecht

| Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, 9:03 p.m.

The drug addicts and dealers that famed forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril H. Wecht worries about the most do not hang out on street corners in bad neighborhoods.

Many “dealers” are doctors or licensed pharmacists, and some users have real medical conditions. But the pervasive use of prescription medicine, Wecht says, is “an epidemic.”

“There is no demographic. They are rich and poor, black and white, from rural and urban areas,” he said. “It's a situation that is out of control for many reasons.”

Prescription drug abuse is the nation's fastest-growing drug problem, according to the latest Drug Enforcement Administration's Drug Threat Assessment, released in November.

Prescription pain medications are the most commonly abused prescription drugs and are the ones most often involved in overdoses, the report said.

The estimated number of emergency department visits nationwide involving non-medical use of prescription opiates increased 112 percent — 84,671 to 179,787 — between 2006 and 2010, according to the DEA.

In Allegheny County, accidental drug, poison or alcohol deaths rose from 224 in 2009 to 289 in 2012 — a 29 percent increase — statistics from the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office show.

Overdoses from prescription and illegal drugs have been the leading cause of accidental deaths and suicides in Westmoreland County in seven of the past eight years, according to the county's Department of Human Services. Westmoreland County had 78 overdose deaths in 2012 compared with 22 in 2002.

Washington County had 40 overdose deaths in 2012, down from 46 the year before, according to the office of Washington County Coroner Tim Warco. In 1992, the office recorded two overdose deaths.

Lily Brindle, a psychotherapist and outreach specialist at Gateway Rehabilitation Clinic, said she has seen prescription drug abuse from users as young as 13 — who take pills from their parents' and grandparents' medicine cabinets — to the elderly, who take opiates for legitimate pain issues, build up a tolerance and get hooked.

It is usually the users in their 20s and 30s, however, who make the switch from prescription drugs such as Vicodin, hydrocodone and OxyContin — which can sell on the street for up to $80 a pill — to heroin, which gives them the same kind of high at a fraction of the cost, Brindle said. A stamp bag of heroin sells for about $10.

Wecht said a solution must be “done by a quartet” of government agencies, physicians, pharmacists and law enforcement. He doesn't think any amount of prevention will stop the problem, “but we certainly can diminish it,” he said.

One effort Wecht supports is an electronic database that would allow doctors and pharmacists to see what other medications someone has been prescribed. Forty-seven states have such programs, according to the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws.

“This is an important, life-saving tool,” said state Rep. Matt Baker, R-Wellsboro, Tioga County, who in October introduced legislation to establish a statewide database.

“The programs improve patient care and prescribing practices, help uncover drug diversion, identify doctor shopping and will provide training of health care professionals in prevention, identification of drug problems and referral when appropriate,” Baker said.

The measure is in the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee.

In addition to the database, Brindle advocates educating young people about the dangers of drugs, alerting teachers to the signs of abuse and making sure local judges aren't too lenient simply because they perceive prescription drugs “aren't that bad.”

“Just because something is a prescription drug there's this pretense that it's prescribed by a physician, so it's safe. But these are some really potent medications,” she said. “You really wonder how they're surviving it, truthfully.”

Adam Brandolph is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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