Prescription Drug Abuse: Are You Really Informed?

When people speak of drug abuse, one immediately thinks of drugs such as marijuana and cocaine. However, people rarely think of the common drugs found in their homes and medicine cabinets. These pharmaceuticals typically are used for medicinal or “good” purposes; however we are starting to see an alarming trend of abuse of this medicine. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, nearly 7 million Americans abuse prescription drugs. That’s more than the total number abusing cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and other drugs – and the number has increased 80% in the past 6 years. Prescription drug abuse cuts right across all sectors of the community: from young teens to the elderly, from high school students and college students to health professionals like doctors, nurses and veterinarians. It can affect the unemployed in economically depressed areas to the wealthiest of Hollywood celebrities.

We are no stranger to that trend here in Wisconsin. In a recent press conference, the Wisconsin Attorney General stated, “sixty (60) percent of our teenagers report that they have access to controlled substances in and around their homes. Two in ten (20%) have abused them to get high. None of us would drop our kids off at a ‘drug house’, yet many of us do not safeguard our own prescription drugs.”

Teenagers have started abusing these medications at “pharming” parties. This is a party where everyone brings a bottle of medication and they combine all of them in a candy dish or bowl. The more varied colors of pills the better, another term used for these parties is “skittling” because the pills resemble the candy of the same name. In 2010 the Town of Menasha Police Department arrested a 15 year old girl who had almost 200 prescription pills that she had taken from relatives and was attempting to sell at her high school.

Some people may view this as a “victimless” crime, in a sense that the only damage being done is to the abuser. Law enforcement agencies in Northeast Wisconsin can attest to the fact that this is not the case. In recent years, law enforcement has investigated many thefts and burglaries where pharmaceuticals were the primary target. In many cases, money and jewelry were bypassed. These addicts and criminals have become increasingly brazen in their crimes, and we have started to see home invasions where innocent residents have suffered serious injuries. Pharmacies have also been the target of armed robberies, something that was unheard of ten years ago. Even more disturbing is the number of people who have been hospitalized and even died due to their addiction.

Back in 2009 a coalition was formed in Northeast Wisconsin to combat this problem, and we developed an educational kit entitled “Good Drugs Gone Bad” to educate parents, families and concerned citizens about the seriousness of prescription drug abuse. The toolkit is intended to be used as part of a presentation that could be given to prevention professionals to help spread the word about pharmaceutical abuse. The toolkit was introduced at a press conference in 2009. Since that time, we have promoted and disseminated the toolkit to over 1,000 prevention professionals across Wisconsin and the United States.

In addition to the toolkit, the coalition works to address the disposal, or lack thereof, of pharmaceuticals. A drug drop box program was established in 2010 in Winnebago County (WI) and there are now drug drop boxes in all police departments in the county as well as throughout NE Wisconsin. In the past year, the drop boxes in Winnebago County have collected over 1,000 pounds of pharmaceuticals.

This will truly require a “team” effort to combat the problem. We must work together to develop and implement effective strategies to combat prescription drug abuse. On our team we have all sorts of players: parents, youth, concerned community members, school staff, business owners, pharmacists, law enforcement officers, prevention workers, health care professionals and more. All of us play a critical role in prevention and so can you.