The telephone rings with hospital personnel or the police on the other end.
Your family member is unresponsive, near death, they say. Drugs were involved. Your mind spins. How did your loved one succumb to an overdose when all you knew was that they were taking drugs prescribed by a physician? You have questions and you're are looking for answers, some of which may be found in a tragic link between prescription painkillers and heroin.
One American dies every 19 minutes of a prescription drug overdose, an "epidemic" the Center for Disease Control says. In 2009, more people died from prescription drug overdoses than motor vehicle accidents, and more people die in the U.S. from prescription drug overdoses each year than from heroin and cocaine combined.
For some, it starts all too simply. Some individuals start taking painkillers because they had an on-the-job injury or were involved in a car wreck. Too often such an innocent beginning leads to a tragic end because a doctor prescribes painkillers as the initial course of treatment.
For some, the pain is initially relieved but later returns, causing that patient to go back to the doctor for more meds. Because of the addictive nature of the drugs themselves, people who never dreamed of abusing drugs find themselves addicted, and later, either succumb to overdoses and pass away or have their lives destroyed. In either event, their families are left to pick up the pieces.
These painkillers were designed to be used as end-of-life drugs to ease the pain associated with cancers, but then the pharmaceutical companies marketed the painkillers as safe for everyday pain with little or no danger of addiction or overdose. Now, some doctors prescribe these painkillers as a front-line treatment for everyday pain.
Thomas Frieden, director of Centers for Disease Control has said: "When I was in medical school, one thing I was told was completely wrong. The one I was told was, if you give opiates to a patient who's in pain, they will not get addicted. Completely wrong. But a generation of doctors, a generation of us grew up being trained that these drugs aren't risky. In fact, they are risky."
The CDC now recognizes these drugs are very addictive, and over-prescription of opioids is endangering lives. Sadly, it is too late for those who have already died, and time may have already run out for many others whose lives sit in ruin.
We all have a responsibility to be careful with our prescriptions. Yet people contribute, unknowingly, to painkiller abuse:
• when they save prescription medicines in their medicine cabinets "for a rainy day;"
• when they give their unused pain medication to family members or friends;
• when they simply neglect to monitor the contents of their medicine cabinets; or
• when they neglect to properly dispose of their unused medicines.
Regrettably, the data overwhelmingly reflects that more than 70 percent of people get their prescription drugs from a family member or out of an unguarded medicine cabinet.
The number of adults who used heroin in the past year rose from 373,000 in 2007 to 669,000 in 2012. Dr. Bankole A. Johnson, an addiction expert has said: "Because there has been tighter control on prescription drugs, addicts have begun to trend more directly to non-prescribed opiate use. Typically, the prescription opiates have been the gateway to increased non-prescription use ... "
In our opinion, there is no denying the rise in heroin use is related to the painkiller crackdown. In addition, the rise in heroin use is occurring during a time when prices for illicit painkillers are sky-high. In 2011, OxyContin sold for $50-$80 per pill and the generic version sold for $12-$40 per pill. Meanwhile, a "dime bag" of heroin typically costs $10.
While there are no silver bullets for solving the painkiller and heroin epidemics, we should all take these steps:
1. Educate ourselves, our children and re-educate our physicians about the many different aspects of these epidemics.
2. Control our own medicine cabinets.
3. Help raise community awareness of the problem.
4. Support the cries for increased treatment availability/facilities for those who are addicted.
The quality of our own lives and those of our loved ones stand in the balance.
Alix Michel and David Ward are Chattanooga lawyers at Michel & Ward, PC who have spent the last three years presenting on many issues surrounding prescription drug misuse. They can be reached at 423-602-9521.