LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Katina Morgan’s descent into drug dependency began in her mother’s medicine cabinet, where she uncapped supplies of painkillers and anti-anxiety medicine as a teenager.
She started popping one or two pills at a time but within a month was taking half-dozen at once. She was hooked, and her addiction eventually spread to the powerful painkiller OxyContin and the stimulant known as meth.
Two stays in prison followed for drug convictions, but now the 32-year-old mother of two is trying to get her life back on track at a Louisville substance abuse treatment center. And she urges people to avoid the temptations lurking in the bathrooms of family or friends.
“Don’t do it, not even once, because for me that’s all it took,” she said.
For people on the front lines in the fight against prescription pill abuse, it comes as no surprise that a nationwide analysis points to the homes of relatives or friends as key sources for people to start misusing powerful painkillers.
“Drugs left in home medicine cabinets are prime targets for prescription drug abuse,” Michele Leonhart, administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said in a conference call Wednesday.
Among new abusers, 68 percent obtained the pills from friends or relatives for free or took them without asking, according to an analysis of 2009 and 2010 data released by the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, 66 percent of occasional abusers — who used pain relievers less than once a week on average — obtained the pills in the same way from family or friends, according to the analysis, based on a survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Among both groups, just 17 percent obtained the painkillers through doctors’ prescriptions.
The reliance on family or friends dropped among chronic abusers of pain relievers. The survey found that 41 percent of them obtained pills for free or without asking from friends or relatives, while 26 percent got doctors’ prescriptions.
Addiction to prescription painkillers has skyrocketed in recent years in the U.S., with White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske calling it a “public health epidemic.”
Opioid pain relievers — the category that includes popular prescription painkillers oxycodone and hydrocodone — caused about 15,500 overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
Oxycodone is the key ingredient in OxyContin, Percocet and Percodan. Hydrocodone is the key ingredient in Vicodin, Norco and Lortab.
In Kentucky, one of the hardest-hit states, pharmacies and homes in some areas have been robbed by people looking to feed their addictions, said Van Ingram, executive director of the state’s Office of Drug Control Policy.
Real estate agents warn people in some areas to lock up their medicines before showing their homes, he said.
Especially among teens and youth adults, the homes of loved ones or friends are prime locations to find prescription painkillers, he said.
“Most of us can’t go to our grandmother’s house and find cocaine, marijuana or methamphetamine, but we can find prescription painkillers,” he said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
The federal government and states have tried to counter the rise of prescription pill abuse by cracking down on “pill mill” clinics that dispensed mass amounts of painkillers and expanding state-based prescription drug monitoring programs.
Meanwhile, the DEA has planned its fourth “National Take Back Day” this Saturday, when more than 5,000 collection sites will be available nationwide for people to dispose of unused or expired medications.
“These are addictions and deaths that don’t have to happen, if we as a society would be more judicious and more cautious with our medications,” Ingram said.
In the three previous events, officials nationwide took in almost one million pounds of pills that were taken out of circulation.
At The Healing Place, which treats about 600 people at its substance abuse centers in Louisville and Campbellsville in Kentucky, addiction to prescription pills is a common problem.
Josh Lyvers, 24, said it was his mother’s outdated supply of prescription pills that deepened his drug dependency. He later stole and robbed for money to feed his addiction. He spent years in and out of jail before seeking help at The Healing Place.
“It completely took over my life,” he said. “It became the only thing that I worried about.”
Now, after a year of treatment, he’s working to get his high school equivalency diploma. He hopes to go to college and find work as an alcohol and drug counselor.