NORTHPORT, Maine — The state needs to step up its participation in its online prescription drug monitoring program, educate residents, keep better track of disposal of the drugs and help its doctors find out if their patients have been arrested for drug-related crimes, according to an action plan devised at Maine’s first prescription drug abuse summit.
The event, held Tuesday at Point Lookout in Northport, came about because prescription drug abuse in Maine is a fast-growing problem with many causes, said Maine Attorney General William J. Schneider. He said he wanted to bring together officials from law enforcement, hospitals, drug treatment programs, the state of Maine and others to tackle the issues that stem from prescription drug abuse.
A federal report released last December showed that Maine has the highest rate of prescription drug abuse in the nation, and speakers at the summit said the high rate is a contributing factor to many of the state’s other problems, including metal theft and home invasions.
“I think it’s a very critical issue that we’re facing,” said Gov. Paul LePage, one of the speakers. “All agencies in state government are very concerned about this very severe problem. We just really need to get a hold of it … it is going to affect more and more the safety of Maine.”
Among the troubling statistics shared at the event are:
• Pharmaceutical overdose deaths in Maine today outnumber motor vehicle deaths.
• Nearly a quarter of high school seniors have used someone else’s prescription drugs.
• More than 500 babies have suffered opiate withdrawal at birth.
Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said that the entire country has seen a significant increase in prescription drug abuse over the years, with seven million Americans reporting nonmedical use of the drugs in 2010.
While pain was considered to be under-treated 15 years ago, the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, he said.
“Prescription drugs are not recognized by either young people or old people as being dangerous,” he said. “That makes it a much more difficult problem for us to deal with.”
Some of the efforts to get a handle on the epidemic have reaped rewards, including a push to have dentists reduce their prescriptions.
“We can make a difference. We can turn this thing around,” he said.
Col. Bob Williams of the Maine State Police said that abuse of prescription drugs has turned something intended to have a good effect into something “absolutely devastating.”
“For prescription drug abuse, it’s absolutely out of control,” he said.
Abuse of drugs including oxycodone, Vicodin and Oxycontin play a part in many of the state’s burglaries and in the growing problem of metal theft as addicts steal to finance their habits, he said. Seniors — many of whom have drugs in their medicine cabinets — are particularly victimized by drug abusers.
“If it isn’t tied down, it’s gone, and all because of prescription drug abuse,” he said.
He addressed a roomful of people that included law enforcement officers, doctors, policy directors, pharmacists, state officials and drug treatment clinicians. The room was silent as Williams discussed a particular case which involved a drug abuser who wouldn’t have fit the stereotype. This woman was a successful, kind soccer mom who became addicted to prescription drugs after being in a car accident.
“To treat the pain, she was pumped full of pills, making her an addict,” he said. “She goes from being a model mother to what I would classify as a drug abuser and criminal.”
The woman eventually caused a car accident while high, he said.
“She kills a 19-year-old college kid. A friend of mine,” Williams said, his voice breaking. “The crime, we can deal with. It’s the personal tragedies we never hear about. Good, good people. It’s the people we see every day. Maybe even somebody in this room who’s addicted. We will never eliminate it. We’d be fools to think we could … the problem will always be here, but we can manage it better than we’ve been managing it.”
LePage and other speakers called on doctors to stop over-prescribing pain medication.
“We need to convince them they need to limit the numbers of drugs they’re prescribing,” the governor said. “The kids at the university are telling me it’s easier to get prescription drugs than it is to get off the couch, go down to the store and get a six-pack of beer.”
The Rev. Bob Carlson, president of Penobscot Community Health Care, went a step further. “We want to medicate. We don’t want to feel any pain,” he said.
But pain is a symptom of the underlying problem, and when the pain is managed without treatment of the underlying problem, it can be dangerous, he said.
Some hopeful trends include the growing participation rate in the voluntary online prescription drug monitoring program, which was established in 2004. About half of the state’s doctors use the program, which tracks addictive prescriptions and is designed to identify patients who may be drug seeking or who may “doctor shop,” as well as to identify prescribers who write a lot of opiate orders.
“We’re trained at medical school to believe our patients,” said Dr. Jay Reynolds, the chief medical officer at The Aroostook Medical Center in Presque Isle, explaining the dilemma faced by doctors.
Another program that a Maine Drug Enforcement Agency official described is Diversion Alert, in use now in Aroostook and Piscataquis counties and coming soon in Hancock and Penobscot counties.
Program participants — drug prescribers and pharmacists — receive a monthly list of people in their area who have been charged or convicted of a drug-related crime.
“There’s no single solution,” Kerlikowske said. “Everybody has a role to play in reducing this problem.”