For years, marijuana reigned as the number one gateway drug leading to further use and abuse of other illegal substances.
Not any more, says assistant Marshall County District Attorney and district judge-elect Mitch Floyd.
Prescription pills are now number one.
“For as long as the Department of Justice has tracked drug abuse, marijuana was the first-time users’ drug of choice,” Floyd said. “But in 2010 prescription pills overtook marijuana.”
National drug assessments show that more than 2,000 adolescents a day try pills for the first time. Floyd added that in a national survey in 2008, teens reported that prescription pills were easier to obtain than beer.
For many, pain pills and other controlled substances are increasingly as handy as their parents’ medicine cabinet.
Almost four billion prescriptions were written in the United States in 2010. That, according to Floyd’s numbers, is an increase of 167 percent since 1989.
Even taking into account population growth, there was a big jump. In 1989, Floyd said, Americans averaged 6.08 prescriptions per person, but by 2010 that had increased to 12.99.
The most prescribed pills in 2010 were in the hydrocodone family, Floyd said. Doctors wrote more than 131 million scripts for painkillers Lortab, Lorcet and Vicodin – narcotics all capable of addiction.
The simple truth, Floyd said, is that more and more prescriptions are written for pain and other medications. Much of it is legitimate, but some patients “doctor shop” and get multiple prescriptions for the same ailment or excuse.
The internet has increased availability, and some unscrupulous pain clinics have been shut down for the excessive distribution of prescriptions.
Four of them operated in Florida by one company were shut down after less than 36 months. During that time they issues scripts for 20 million doses of oxycodone and contributed to 53 overdoses.
Floyd said physicians writing scripts for the four clinics saw as many as 500 patients per day – 80 percent of them from out of state – and earned $35,000 per week. Employees heard on wiretap complained about the large amounts of cash they had to handle, even after separating all of the $1 bills and burning them.
Helping escalate the abuse of prescription pills, Floyd said, is a lack of education.
“The mentality is that these prescriptions don’t carry the stigma of illegal drugs because doctors prescribe them,” he said. “But the truth is pills are more deadly than heroin, cocaine and meth combined.”
That statistic comes from a national statistic on overdose deaths in 2010.
He provides more statistics, further painting a picture of the dangers involved:
In 2008 emergency room visits involving non-medical use of prescriptions pills totaled 305,885, which grew 30 percent in 2009 to 397,160;
Addiction treatment center admissions from 1997 to 2007 jumped 400 percent;
Controlled pills killed 14,800 people in the U.S. in 2008
That number jumped to 37,485 in 2009 – more than the number of people who died in car accidents that year.Working cases involving controlled pills are more difficult than those involving, say, pot. For example, Floyd said, marijuana found during a traffic stop is clearly contraband, but it’s harder to prove the same for pills if someone has a prescription.Conservatively guessing, he said, at least 30 percent of all drug cases involve a combination of controlled pills and some obvious contraband, such as meth. These cases are usually prosecuted for the meth, Floyd said.
Floyd pointed out another problem with prescription medications that’s not abuse related but rather environmental.
Half of all unused medications are tossed in the trash, and 40 percent are flushed down toilets. That, he said, is why a study by the United States Geological Survey found low levels of antibiotics, hormones, contraceptives, opiates, steroids and the like in 80 percent of the rivers and streams in the continental U.S.
Water treatment facilities cannot remove the drugs, Floyd said, and hormones making their way into the streams and rivers have led to male fish producing eggs.
The DA’s office has worked in recent years with Marshall County RSVP and the drug enforcement unit to organize pill round-ups, where residents are encouraged to turn in leftover and outdated drugs at various locations around the county.
During the drive last October, county residents turned in 69,804 pills that might otherwise have been improperly disposed of or gotten into the wrong hands, Floyd said.
Floyd’s statistics come from the 2011 National Drug Threat Assessment, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, surveys by Court Appointed Special Advocates and other sources. He has a presentation on the problem of prescription pills that he gives to civic groups and others on request.