Ohio Communities Struggle with Abuse of Prescription Painkillers

(Sound of townhall gathering)

It was standing room only in the Mercy Health & Recreation Center in Amherst; nearly a hundred people showed up at Thursday’s townhall with one thing on their minds: what to do about the growing problem of prescription painkillers.

The drugs are medically necessary for people that struggle with chronic pain, but they're also highly addictive and widely abused.

HALL: This is without question the most serious addiction crisis in the history of our country, at least in the 20th and 21th centuries. This is nothing like what we’ve previously seen, in terms of overdose and death.

Orman Hall is with the Ohio Dept of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services and was one of 8 panelists, along with people from law enforcement, medicine, pharmacy, and other fields.

State figures show since 2007, more Ohioans have died from drug overdoses than in car crashes.

Dr. Stephen Evans from the Lorain County Coroner’s Office told the crowd their community is not immune.

EVANS: Locally, we’re up 500 percent in just five years—our number of deaths from drug overdoses.

Prescription pills are to blame for most of these deaths, says Evans. And it’s not just an inner-city problem.

EVANS: Most of the people that I’ve seen that have been overdosing have been in the suburbs and the rural areas of Lorain County.

Particularly troubling, panelists say, is the use of prescription pain meds by teens.

They experiment with pills they find in the family medicine cabinet.

A lot of parents were in attendance.

I spoke with one mother from Amherst who found out her son was in trouble when she got a phone call from the police on her birthday.

KATHY: I went home—see you’re going to get me crying—I confronted my son, and he also said that was the day that saved his life because he was hitting rock bottom.

Her son started with pain pills and was doing heroin by the time he was twenty-two.

Both are opiate drugs and work in similar ways in the brain.

Experts say abuse of pills often leads to heroin addiction down the line.

Lisa Swenski is a judge in Lorain and works with juveniles.

She says the state’s crackdown on pill mills has left addicts searching for alternatives.

SWENSKI: We did a good job cutting down on the number of prescription pills out and about, and as a result the teens turn to heroin.

This is a professional, and personal, issue for Swenski.

SWENSKI: My sister’s ex-husband died of a drug overdose. His son has a heroin problem. And then the boy that I raised, he had a drug problem, he went in the Marine Corps, did very well, discovered drugs, came out, and his life went to hell. So we buried him in June of 2011.

For many in the audience, state and local efforts to stem the abuse of prescription painkillers hasn’t been strong enough.

The meeting closed with several impassioned pleas—for parents to lock up their pain meds, and for the community to offer more addiction services—especially detox for those going through withdrawal as they try and get clean.

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