Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

February 10, 2013

Drug overdose deaths on decline

Carrie Stambaugh
The Independent

CATLETTSBURG — Drug overdose deaths in Boyd and Greenup County are on the decline.

The drop is being attributed to new stiffer laws surrounding prescription painkillers but is leading to a resurgence in heroin use and a new methamphetamine problem, officials say.

Coroners in both counties say they’ve seen a dramatic decrease in deaths attributed to prescription drug overdoses from 2011 to 2012. Boyd County Coroner Mark Hammond said there were 22 drug overdoses in Boyd County during 2012, compared to 42 the prior year.

“They are down right at 50 percent,” said Hammond.

“We have seen a dramatic drop, too,” agreed Greenup County Coroner Neil Wright. He did not have exact figures available but estimated the numbers are at least half of what they were.

“They are not nearly the frequency they were in ’08, ’09, ’10, ’11,” Wright said, adding it was not uncommon for his office to work five or six drug deaths a month before. That rate has now decreased to one or two, he said.

The majority of the drug overdose deaths can be attributed to prescription opiates, including Oxycontin, Oxycodone and Fentanyl, the coroners said.

“People start out taking pills, then they crush them and snort them. Then eventually they are shooting up the pills. A lot of people, when they go from one stage to the other, they use the same amount and it kills them,” explained Hammond.

Overdose deaths are also disproportionately among adults in the late 30s to late 50s, Hammond and Wright said.

“The young people are just the ones you hear about. Those are the ones people want to hear about, but that only accounts for a third of our caseload,” he said, adding “The young ones are being saved to do it again.”

Both Hammond and Wright attribute the drop in prescription deaths to new laws cracking down on the availability of pills. More enforcement by Florida officials has slowed the flow of pills from the Sunshine State to Kentucky and Kentucky’s HB 1, which went into effect last summer, have both squeezed the supply side, they say.  HB 1 sought to put cash pain clinics out of business and crack down on prescribers requiring them to make reports each time they prescribe a drug to the state’s electronic tracking system KASPER.

“Pill arrests have gone down and when we do get arrests we’re seizing fewer numbers of pills,” said Greenup County Sheriff Keith Cooper.

Boyd County Sheriff Terry Keelin echoed Cooper in what he’s observed over the past year.

“We have definitely seen a drop. I believe whole-heartedly it is because Florida tightened up. I think there is more focus on it, too. The DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) and the other federal agencies have gone after both doctors and clinics. A combination of all of that has tightened up the pill dispersal,” said Keelin. “I think, as time goes on, it will have an even greater effect,” he added, referring to HB 1.

The squeeze has driven up the cost of pills to as much as $40 to $50 each, which in turn is also driving users to cheaper alternatives such as meth and heroin.

Keelin was optimistic that prescription pain abuse — at least in northeast Kentucky —  has reached its peak and is declining.

Cooper is less optimistic. “I’m glad we’re seeing a drop in all these things, but am I confident it is going to stay that way and we have solved the pill problem? No I am not,” he said. “We have a population of people who simply want to get high and they are going to get high.”

He did report one other positive, linked to the decline in pill use: burglaries and theft cases are dropping, too. “Knock on wood,” Cooper added.

All four men attributed the success in fighting pills to a collaborative effort across agencies.

“Your prosecutors and judges have to be on the same page as your police. Here they are, we all know the cost of it,” said Cooper.

Wright agreed. “It takes everybody working together. It took a year or two for everybody to get on the same page. Once local, state and federal all got on the same page and we all started working together then we started seeing progress. Kudos go out to these people to the law enforcement and prosecutors. They have done a bang-up job,” he added.

No one is declaring victory just yet though. All are deeply concerned about the rise in meth and heroin use.

“That is an even greater sign to me that pills are tightening,” said Keelin. “Heroin was here with us before the pill problem. It reduced significantly when people were going to get pills because they are both opium based. Now that pills are drying up, we’re starting to see more heroin.”

Keelin said from a law enforcement standpoint, heroin is much easier to prosecute because it is completely illegal.

Both Boyd and Greenup have also seen has seen a dramatic rise in methamphetamine production, which is deadly for users as well as non-users because of its explosive manufacturing process.

“The use of it will kill them over a period of time rather than one overdose or episode. It kills, but it kills a little more slowly,” said Cooper.

Hammond explained that many meth and heroin users tend to die of major organ system failure caused by continued drug use than an overdose death. Meth is particularly brutal to lungs and heart function, he said.

“If you start on meth, you have basically committed suicide,” said Keelin. “They are not going to get off of it and it is going to kill them.”

Boyd County Commonwealth’s Attorney David Justice, Keelin added, has also taken a stiff stance on those found guilty of manufacturing it. “He has a set policy of it’s a minimum of 10 years,” said Keelin.

CARRIE STAMBAUGH can be reached at cstambaugh@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2653.