Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series produced by the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith. The entire series will be published online at www.sherwoodvoice.com.
Last week, we began a series of reports on prescription drug abuse in Arkansas and locally. The series will continue a few more days, but we so far have learned:
• An estimated 20 percent of people in the U.S. have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons in their lifetime, and prescription drug abuse is a "serious and growing problem," according to the National Institute of Health.
• Hydrocodone is the most prescribed opioid in the U.S. and "is associated with more drug abuse and diversion than any other licit or illicit opioid," according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
• Prosecutors in Sebastian and Crawford counties prosecute crimes involving prescription drugs more frequently than marijuana and methamphetamine.
• Prescription drug addicts make up about 75 percent of the 145 drug court participants in Sebastian County Drug Court.
Those statistics are sobering. Doctors prescribe medicines to help their patients — to curb their pain after surgery or an accident, to control their pain caused by a chronic disease — but they cannot control what happens to pills that go unused or when patients develop an addiction.
"Addiction is the only disease for which a relapse tends to be interpreted as if treatment and recovery don’t work," Dr. Kim Light, pharmacology professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Science’s College of Pharmacy, told us. "Asthma, diabetes type 2 and hypertension all have the same relapse rates as addiction, about 40-60 percent. But if an asthmatic has an asthma attack, we don’t say, ‘See? Asthma treatment doesn’t work.’"
Treatment methods and attitudes regarding prescription drug abuse need to adjust, Light said. "There’s still a stigma of, ‘Well, the individual brought it upon themselves.’ You know, I understand that. It seems like, ‘Why can’t they just stop?’" Light said. "But it’s only because people don’t really understand what’s going on in the brain: the neurobiology of addiction. There’s not anybody who’s an addict who really thinks, ‘This is really just the greatest thing in the world, and I want to keep it up.’"
Ed Barham with the state Department of Health calls prescription drug abuse "the fastest-growing drug problem in America."
But some statistics provide hope. We also have learned:
• In five drug take-back days since September 2010, Arkansas has collected more than 23 1/2 tons of medications — an estimated 66 million pills — and ranks No. 4 in the nation in pounds collected per person.
• Fall 2012 Arkansas Prevention Needs Assessment figures show that only 7.9 percent of the surveyed students statewide reported using prescription drugs over their lifetime, compared to 10.4 percent in fall 2010, the year the Arkansas Take-Back program started.
This spring, the state has implemented the Arkansas Prescription Monitoring Program, which requires every licensed pharmacist in the state to record filling a prescription to all Schedule II, III, IV and V controlled substances, listing the drug, dosage and amount, as well as the personal identification of the person to whom it was issued.
Though the program is still in infancy, Justin Boyd, a pharmacist at Coleman Pharmacy in Alma, said prescription drug abuse "is a problem in the state and in our area specifically. I believe this (program) will be an important tool to help reverse a devastating trend."
Prescription drug abuse is a complicated issue with no easy solution. Said Fort Smith police detective Paul Smith: "It’s so easy to become addicted to pills. You have doctors who by accident over-prescribe, and the patients become addicted, then where do they go from there? I have great empathy and sympathy for these people."
Though we cannot eliminate all drug abuse, prescription or illegal, we can work within our individual families and communities to combat it. We can educate our children, and we can keep prescription drugs out of their reach by keeping them under lock and key and getting rid of them when we no longer need them.
We salute those in our state working to curb prescription drug abuse and educate their communities, the Paul Smiths, the Kim Lights, the pharmacists, the doctors, the school counselors and educators. We encourage continued education and vigilance to protect our communities and our young people.
On the Net: Need to catch up? Our series of reports on prescription drug abuse began April 14 and can be found at swtimes.com, under "News-Special Reports."