AUGUSTA, Maine — Attorney General Bill Schneider is calling a summit in October to find ways to stem the growing problem of prescription drug abuse in Maine. The state was found to have the most serious legal drug abuse problem in the nation in a study released earlier this year.
“It is more serious in Maine than in most states,” he said in an interview. “We are a rural state and it seems to be a rural state kind of problem. The bigger, more urban states still have the more prevalent problem [of] cocaine and crack.”
Schneider said the abuse of prescription drugs was a major topic at the June meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General, and he decided after those sessions with national experts that he would hold a meeting to see what Maine specific actions could be taken to reduce abuse of legally prescribed drugs.
“I don’t even think that the majority of the solution is a law enforcement solution,” he said. “We have to get the doctors and dentists and all of the prescribers involved. We have to get the pharmacists and the insurance companies that cover these services; we have to get all of them involved.”
Schneider said he is not going into the meeting with any expectations it will find the “magic bullet” to solve the problem, but he hopes the summit will identify steps that can be taken to reduce the problem.
“I am delighted that the Attorney General has called this meeting,” said Public Safety Commissioner John Morris. “He is bringing to together all of the players and hopefully we can find some solutions.”
Morris stirred some controversy earlier this year when he blamed the increase in home burglaries on over prescribing of drugs by doctors and other prescribers. He said he has not changed his mind on that issue, but agrees with Schneider that solving the problem requires all of the various groups to work together.
“What I am hoping comes out of this summit is a broader perception by everyone involved in the industry about what happens when there is an over prescription of pills,” he said. “There are some real consequences when there are too may pills in medicine cabinets that don’t need to be there.”
Guy Cousins, director of the Office of Substance Abuse, joined in praising Schneider for calling the meeting. He said the problem of prescription drug abuse is like a wheel with several spokes. He said fixing only one spoke will not make the wheel usable.
“It is prevention, it is intervention, it is treatment, it is supporting recovery and there is the legal system,” he said. “All have to be part of the solution as does the pharmaceutical industry.”
Cousins said the diversion of legal drugs for illegal purposes is widespread because drugs are in nearly every home. He said in addition to home invasions and robberies at pharmacies, there is also the problem of individuals giving a family member or friend a painkiller.
“It’s illegal, because they are a controlled substance and it is dangerous,” he said, “There can be drug interactions that people just don’t think about.”
Cousins said another issue certain to raise controversy at the meeting is expanding the use of the prescription drug monitoring program that was established in 2004. Less than half of the more than 6,500 licensed drug prescribers participate in the online program used to identify doctors that may over prescribe, as well as patients that may “doctor shop” to get prescriptions.
Gordon Smith, vice president of the Maine Medical Association said patients selling drugs that they have been prescribed is a far bigger problem than overprescribing of medications. He said there are always “the very few” doctors that violate the law and prescribing guidelines.
“This is a communitywide problem and we are pleased the Attorney General is taking the lead and calling this summit,” he said. “It is a very serious problem and it is happening all over the state.”
Smith said there are many issues the meeting should address including more education programs for the public on drug issues. That education includes convincing them it is not safe to give someone else a painkiller that they have been prescribed.
“We have to change the culture around drug use,” he said. “We have to do things differently.”
For example, Smith said, the state Medicaid program limits the use of alternatives to pain medications, such as physical therapy. He said some private insurers also put limits on alternatives.
Schneider said all of the details have yet to be completed, but the summit will be at the Point Lookout Conference Center in Northport on Oct. 25.