The Fight Against Prescription Drug Abuse

Jul 31, 2012

It’s ironic how pills designed to heal can be pills that kill.  Prescription drug abuse kills more of Kentucky’s teenagers than auto accidents.  Efforts to reduce those fatalities are underway within law enforcement, the medical community, and the victims of abuse.  57 year old Kathy Bell of Lexington has been treated for prescription drug abuse for four years at the University of Kentucky.  Her addiction began by free basing cocaine in her western Kentucky hometown.  Later, Bell was prescribed medication for pain.  Over the next 20 years, she abused both cocaine and pills.  Her physical health came to depend on her abuse of prescription drugs.  “If I went to bed at night and did not have a pill for the next morning, I couldn’t function.  Non-functional.  I would get diarrhea and I just couldn’t function,” said Bell.

For several years, Bell has received treatment from University of Kentucky psychiatrist Michelle Lofwal.  She sees cases of abuse that date back to changes in medical procedures done almost two decades ago…when the medical community first took an interest in pain management.

“In the 1990’s, pain became the fifth vital sign, so doctors actually had to document patients’ subjective report of pain, and have to address it,” said Lofwal.

There may be the perception that many drug abusers are not interested in ending their addictions.  While admitting some addicts may be content with their state, Lofwal says many also try to escape the cycle of addiction

“Unfortunately we have more people seeking help than we can sometimes have space to treat, so there are waiting lists in many medication assisted treatment programs.  So, we really need to increase access to treatment,” added Lofwal.

When treating people dependent on heroin and other opiates, Doctor Lofwal now has many options.  She says there are wonderful medications that allow patients to manage their addition.  And, as a result, she says there’s less drug-related crime.

Michelle Young heads Special Investigations for Lexington’s Division of Police.  She says enforcing laws that govern prescription drug abuse is different than a crackdown on illicit drugs.  Unlike cocaine, Young says prescription medications serve a useful purpose.

“How do you keep, the I guess the prescription pills needed for society and for to keep people from suffering from pain dealing with pain management versus the illegal use of it?” asked Young.

And abusers, both of illegal drugs and prescription medications, pay a high price. Young says data from a couple of years ago showed an average of 80 drug overdose deaths per month in Kentucky.

“Some overdoses are maybe gonna be ruled suicide or maybe some other underlying issue, but I think they’re actually probably being under reported. So I think there’s a lot more out there, at least, when I say, maybe not overdoses but involving prescription drugs and maybe other types of drugs,” says Young.  

Doctor Lofwal says some overdose deaths can be prevented with the use of a reversal agent called naloxzone.  She says there are programs in some large cities where it can be given immediately to a drug abuser who’s in distress.

“These are programs where by standers are allowed to give an injection or even an intranasal administration of naloxzone to the person that is no longer responding and is not breathing,” said Lofwal.

Lofwal says lots of overdoses are witnessed but people don’t call for help because they worry about a possible arrest on drug charges. 

Twice, recovering drug-abuser Kathy Bell has seen friends die of a drug overdose.

“That was the breaking point right there.  That’s enough, two people.  They mixed these concoctions.  They mixed alcohol, with the weed, with the cocaine, with the pills.  That’s just too much.  It’s a helluva cocktail.  It is.  Your body don’t know what to do,” explained Bell.

Bell’s treatment continues, and believes five years from now, she will have more control over her addiction, but she also realizes the threat of relapse will always be with her.

“I try to keep my mind focused.  Keep myself busy.  Cause, otherwise, I’m gonna relapse.  It’s hard because I can’t visit my brothers now and some of the people I really care about because of their addiction,” said Bell.

Bell hates the idea of turning her back on people she’s known all her life.  But, a high school reunion this fall worries her because it could trigger a return to drug abuse.