Paducah—An average of 44 people die in the United States every day from drug overdoses involving prescription drugs, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
More than 1,000 people die each year in Kentucky from prescription drug overdoses, giving the state the third-highest overdose death rate in the nation.
In McCracken County, the problem of prescription drug abuse has gotten steadily worse over the past 10 years, said Det. John Tolliver, the prescription drug diversion investigator with the Paducah Police Department.
“The addiction rates have risen, the overdose rates have skyrocketed, not just here in Paducah but nationwide,” he said. “Accidental prescription drug overdose deaths have climbed to the number one reason for accidental deaths in the country, surpassing even auto accidents, and that’s just in the last couple years.”
Ryan Norman, a drug detective with the McCracken County Sheriff’s Department concurred, calling prescription drug abuse “one of the top three problems in our area” along with methamphetamine and cocaine.
The most commonly abused drugs are prescription painkillers, tranquilizers and stimulants, according to research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which also noted that 52 million Americans over the age of 12 have abused prescription drugs at some point in their life.
The institute’s research also showed the U.S. to be the most medicated country in the world with its 5 percent of the globe’s population consuming 75 percent of the world’s prescription medications.
That availability and the fact that many prescription narcotics are cheaper than street drugs are factors that directly contribute to the rise in prescription drug abuse, Tolliver said.
“A lot of the times, most of the cost of the drugs is covered by insurance or some type of health care, and they’re easy to obtain,” he said. “You can get them from family, from friends, from people’s medicine cabinets and doctors’ offices.”
There are also misconceptions regarding the safety of prescription drugs, he added.
“I think people believe that by taking prescription drugs, it’s a safer alternative to illicit drugs on the street,” he said. “They’re FDA approved, you know what you’re getting and people think if a doctor gave it to them then it can’t be bad. I think a lot of people see prescription drugs as a lesser evil.”
Both agreed that prescription drug abuse is an equal-opportunity illness that affects people of every age, race, gender and socio-economic status.
The number of children as young as 12 experimenting with and abusing the drugs is also on the rise.
The detectives said many people who become addicted to prescription medications initially start using the drugs for legitimate reasons, such as pain management for an injury or illness.
“As the addiction cycle begins to take hold, they need more and more of (the drug) feed their addiction,” Tolliver said.
In addition to law enforcement efforts to combat prescription drug addiction, state legislators have sought to tighten regulations.
Prescription monitoring programs such as Kentucky’s KASPER system have become valuable tools in reducing the problem of “doctor shopping,” Tolliver said, making it easier to monitor physicians’ prescribing practices.
House Bill 1, which was passed in 2012, tightened prescription laws and required physicians to consult KASPER before doling out narcotics.
Additionally, Gov. Steve Beshear has announced that Kentucky will receive nearly $4 million in federal funding over the next four years to “combat the epidemic of prescription drug overdoses.”
The money will be used to fund continued research and education efforts as well as enhance enforecement systems now in place.
On a local level, both Paducah police and the sheriff’s department regularly organize drug “take back” days where citizens can bring in unused or expired medications in and give them to officials for safe disposal.
Last spring, Tolliver said a total of 243 pounds of prescription medications was collected.
There is a prescription drop-off box in the lobby at the police department, and the sheriff’s department will take unwanted medications at any time and dispose of them.
Despite efforts, Tolliver said the problem has not been contained.
“Since beginning this position in January 2013, my caseload has steadily increased and arrests have increased, even though we are making the laws tougher.” (KPA: The Paducah Sun)