AUGUSTA, Maine — The increasing illegal use of prescription drugs has become a crisis, state law enforcement officials say.
To combat the problem, the officials are stressing that they need every tool, from federal grants to programs for disposal of unneeded prescription drugs.
“That’s an epidemic that we are facing right now,” said state Attorney General Janet Mills. “It has a serious economic impact on Maine and the state budget because of the use of MaineCare funds for the use of all kinds of prescription drugs that end up in the wrong hands.”
Mills said the increase in prescription drug diversion is dramatic, and she is using federal grant money to assign two prosecutors to drug diversion cases. In 1998, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency reported 50 diversion arrests that were 7 percent of all drug arrests that year. In 2008, there were 259 arrests that accounted for 39 percent of all drug arrests.
“The diversion of prescription drugs has now outpaced cocaine for the first time,” said Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. “This is more than just a public safety issue; it is a public health issue.”
He said the diversion of prescription drugs is both for money and for personal use by people who have become addicted to drugs such as pain medications. The problem is so widespread that law enforcement needs every tool it can get to combat the problem, McKinney said. He praised a bill before the Legislature that would al-low broader access by law enforcement to the database maintained by the state of purchases of drugs through MaineCare, the state Medicaid program.
“Folks are out filling prescriptions one day with their MaineCare card and the next day with cash, potentially selling that drug,” Rep. Gary Connor, D-Kennebunk, said during floor debate last week. “They are hurting the people that are on the system for the right reasons and need our help.”
A minority of lawmakers were worried about law enforcement use of a database whose main purpose is to prevent the prescribing of drugs that may be in conflict with another prescription drug. They also expressed concern over privacy issues for individuals on MaineCare.
But Rep. Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, a pharmacist, said MaineCare is paid for by the taxpayers and diversion is costing them money, not the MaineCare recipient. He also is convinced there is a need to use the data to get at drug abusers.
“I have seen people reel out a wad of hundred-dollar bills that none of us have ever seen to pay for OxyContin,” he said. “And then subsequently we find out [that] just a few days before, they used their MaineCare card to buy the drug.”
OxyContin is a powerful painkiller that is highly addictive if not used according to strict doctor’s instructions.
Mills said the cases involve both individuals who are seeking drugs to sell on the street and individuals who are “feeding” their own drug addiction. She said the number of drug-related deaths involving prescription drug overdoses also has increased.
“This is a serious issue that involves everyone,” Mills said.
McKinney said his agency has cooperated with several educational programs, particularly for seniors, dealing with how to dispose of unneeded drugs safely and the danger of providing a prescription drug to someone else for their use.
“People think they are helping out a friend or someone they know,” he said, “but they could find it puts themselves at risk.”
Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan agrees the issue is far more than law enforcement’s problem. She said the diversion of prescription drugs for both personal use and sale on the streets is affecting everyone.
“We know of cases where these people have watched the obituaries and broken into a deceased person’s home while the funeral was under way to steal drugs,” she said. “We had a conference recently in Waterville to talk about how to get the word out to the public about what they can do.”
Jordan said MDEA in cooperation with several groups has set up programs where unused prescription drugs can be turned in for proper disposal. The program has had some success, as measured by the number of postage-paid envelopes for mailing the drugs to MDEA that have been distributed across the state, she said.
“We have run out of envelopes,” Jordan said. “We are having more printed.”