Prescription abuse deadlier than heroin
10:06 PM, Sep 9, 2012 – Poughkeepsie Journal
As the nation battles an epidemic of prescription drug abuse, fatal heroin and prescription-painkiller overdoses have increased in Dutchess County.
In recent years, deaths from prescription drugs have exceeded the number of deaths from heroin, according to data from the county Medical Examiner’s Office.
“We’ve seen an increase in heroin deaths, really since 2009,” said Dr. Kari Reiber, the medical examiner.
That year, there were 13 confirmed heroin deaths, three suspected heroin deaths and seven deaths from prescription drugs. In 2010, there were 13 confirmed heroin deaths, one suspected, and 16 deaths from prescription drugs, she said.
In 2011, there were 11 confirmed heroin deaths, and 14 deaths from prescription drugs. From Jan. 1 to June 30 of this year, there were five confirmed heroin deaths, two suspected heroin deaths and 12 fatalities from prescription drugs.
After the spike in heroin deaths in 2009, the Medical Examiner’s Office decided to expand its routine toxicology testing to better facilitate the confirmation of heroin overdose cases, Reiber said.
Frank Tasciotti, assistant coordinator of the Dutchess County Drug Task Force, said there is a direct correlation between the abuse of prescription opiates and the rise of heroin use.
Tasciotti said the addiction to prescription opiates is similar to the addiction to heroin.
“However, users start out feeling that it’s different, that heroin is much more hard core than prescription drugs, whereas in reality, they’re pretty much running on the same path,” he said.
Tasciotti said it appears that the rise in heroin use in Dutchess County started out slowly about 10 years ago.
Before the widespread use of prescription opiates, he said, when people started using heroin, it seemed to be generally “situational” — they were with a group of peers using heroin, and it was introduced to them that way.
His advice to parents is to keep medications in a safe place, and when they are no longer necessary, get rid of them.
“Prescription drug abuse is a silent epidemic that is stealing thousands of lives and tearing apart communities and families across America,” said Gil Kerlikoswke, director of the National Drug Control Policy, in a written statement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
He said health-care providers and patients should be educated on the risks of prescription painkillers. Parents and grandparents should properly dispose of unneeded or expired medication, and talk to their children about the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs.
Almost 5,500 people begin to misuse prescription painkillers each day, Administrator Pamela S. Hyde of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration said in the CDC release.
The rates of death from prescription painkillers was three times higher among whites and American Indians than blacks and Hispanics, and the death rate was highest among people age 35 to 54, the CDC said.
In Dutchess County, Reiber said, the statistics are similar to the national average.
When an autopsy is performed, the person is tested for a panel of approximately 250 drugs and prescription medications. Once it is determined what is present in the deceased, the quantity is determined.
“Because heroin is metabolized very rapidly in the body, when you test in toxicology you may not find the parent drug anymore,” she said.
Reiber said her office has seen more deaths this year from heroin than cocaine. She’s never seen a death from marijuana alone. If patients die and there is marijuana in their system, they usually have other substances on board as well, she said.
At Saint Francis Hospital in the Town of Poughkeepsie, spokesman Larry Hughes said the number of people coming to the hospital for overdoses, which are not necessarily fatal, has been increasing, “but not remarkably so.”
With heroin specifically, he said, the age group tends to be people in their 20s and 30s, and the overdoses tend to be unintentional.
However, with other drugs, including prescription drugs, cocaine and PCP, the people who wind up at the hospital tend to be depressed or suicidal, Hughes said.
In all cases, he said, the patients are a mix of the down-and-out and professional people.
“Crime Beat,” which explores law enforcement issues and cases worked by police in the Mid-Hudson Valley, appears each Monday. To suggest a topic, call 845-437-4834. Emily Stewart: firstname.lastname@example.org, 845-437-4882, Twitter: @estwrt