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Overprescribed Opiates Fueling Heroin OD Epidemic in MA

Thursday, April 10, 2014


Massachusetts is one of the many states currently trying to combat the nationwide trend of heroin related overdose deaths, but experts say that over prescription of opioid drugs may be one of the root causes of such addictions and overdoses.

Statistical information gathered by the Massachusetts Prescription Monitoring Program says that 40-percent of all Massachusetts residents have been prescribed an opioid at some point in their life. The problem with this is that over prescription of such drugs is leading to easy access, which can eventually lead to heroin usage.

“Young people are definitely doing more prescription drugs than they used to,” said Jim McKenna, VP of Marketing and Development at AdCare Hospital in Worcester. “I think what has happened is that after someone is done with their prescription they begin to turn to heroin as a cheaper alternative.”

The toll of heroin related drug overdoses in Massachusetts has been massive. A reported 185 heroin related overdose deaths occurred in Massachusetts from the beginning of November 2013 to the end of February 2014. This number - although large enough on its own - excludes Worcester, Boston, and Springfield, the state’s three largest cities. 

Prescriptions Linked to Heroin Use

Currently, there are no statistics available that directly link prescription drug abusers to heroin addicts but experts involved with addiction and drug abuse still find the connection an easy one to make.

“There is a whole movement with people starting off with prescribed drugs and then transitioning to heroin later,” said Maryanne Frangules, Founder and Director of Massachusetts Organization for Addiction and Recovery (MOAR). “Whether the person in question has a prescription or knows someone that does, eventually the prescription is going to run out. By then the person may have already developed an addiction. Heroin becomes a logical next step because it is so much cheaper.”

Prescription opioids, like OxyCotin and Percocet, are usually given to patients who have experienced some sort of pain or discomfort. These drugs are prescribed to patients for anything from a broken bone to a vehicle accident to a dental procedure. 

Pain relief is always nice, but many believe that opioids are being over prescribed because the pain threshold requirements have changed. Because of this, doctors have become more relaxed in their decision to hand out bottle after bottle of opioids.

“Opioid prescriptions have seen an increase because the level of pain required to prescribe them has changed,” said Terri Nabulsi of Learn to Cope, an organization that helps Massachusetts families deal with addiction and drug abuse. “What was once only reserved for cases that involved extreme pain can now be given out for cases that only involve moderate pain.”

One of the biggest issues with the over prescription of opioid drugs is that partial prescriptions are often left in medicine cabinets and elsewhere in the home after the pain subsides. These pill bottles are typically the targets of teenagers and young adults who are looking for an easy and free way to get high.

Taking prescription bottle full of opioids for recreational use can become a major problem because it can lead to addiction. Unfortunately for the drug abuser, by the time the addiction sets in their bottle may be empty.

At this point, heroin becomes a likely replacement because it offers a similar set of effects to the addict for a lot cheaper. According to Nabulsi, a single serving bag of heroin is typically around $5 while an opioid pill usually costs around $10 per milligram. 

“A lot of kids turn to opioids as a means of experimentation or because they feel like it is a safer alternative to heroin,” said Nabulsi. “What happens is they begin to use and then their bodies become attached, creating an addiction. After the prescription runs out, opioids can be expensive. Many turn to heroin because it provides the same effects for a lot less money.”

First Hand Experience

While it may be easy to speculate the struggles and patterns of a drug addict, it is another thing entirely to hear one speak from their experiences. Kailin Krikorian, a 23 year old hairdresser and Leicester native, battled with prescription drug abuse and broke the pattern before ever making the switch to heroin. 

“I was first prescribed an opioid when I sprained my ankle; I was 15,” said Krikorian. “When I was 18, taking pills became a big fad in my town. OxyCotin and Percocet were the most popular. I never made my way to heroin but I used to do a lot of pills.”

Most of the people in Krikorian’s town began with pills because it gave them an excuse to justify their drug use. Although the two drugs offer the same effects, a pill popper isn’t as bad as a heroin junkie. 

Krikorian’s peers may have began with using pills as a recreational tool but when the prescriptions ran out, financial burden kicked in, making the transition to heroin all too easy. Luckily for Krikorian, she was able to beat her addiction before ever turning to an alternative. 

“I did a pretty lengthy treatment that involved the 12 step program and a sober house,” said Krikorian. “The biggest challenge about overcoming my addiction was that although I no longer wanted the life of a drug addict, I didn’t know how to live a normal life anymore.”

Now almost a year and a half sober, Krikorian shares her experiences with others at the Learn to Cope meetings in Worcester. She hopes that her story not only helps to deter people from becoming addicts, but also helps to show the families of those dealing with addiction that there is hope for the future. 

Sharing her story is a great way to aid those dealing with addiction, but Krikorian admits that the abundance of prescription drugs in homes are a huge issue, kindling the addictions of many future drug abusers. 

“I know that prescriptions are handed out more than they should be,” said Krikorian. “Take this pill and it will make you feel better is a common statement. If you aren’t a drug addict, you take the pills until you no longer need them and then you put them away and forget about them. Unfortunately, medicine cabinets are where a lot of people start their addictions.”

Removing Opioid Prescriptions from the Streets

Local Police Departments are just one of the groups trying to combat prescription opioids from becoming more of a problem than they already are. 

The Worcester Police Department, in conjunction with the Worcester Department of Public Health and the DEA, will be just one of more than 170 sites in Massachusetts participating in National Prescription Drug Take Back Day at the Worcester Senior Center on April 26th. 

The event has been widely successful in the past as at the event last year yielded over 17,000 pounds of unused prescription drugs in Massachusetts alone. All of these unused prescriptions are taken out of the homes and medicine cabinets of the Commonwealth, hopefully leading to less opioid drug addictions in the future.

A call for stricter prescription laws and education has also been brought up. Local experts say that the best way to stop the rash of unused prescriptions is to further educate doctors in proper prescribing methods so that they can understand that handing out mass quantities of opioids and other highly addictive drugs is potentially leading to heroin usage.

“There needs to be a lot more education for both doctors and the everyday person,” said Frangules of MOAR. “I think that laws and regulations need to become stricter but not in terms of sending people to jail. I think that doctors need to become more educated about the effects of the drugs that they are prescribing; some drugs are very addictive. MOAR would like to see more education in the schools.”


Related Slideshow: New England States with Highest Marijuana Arrest Rates

Prev Next

6. Massachusetts

National Rank for Arrests per Capita: 51

2010 Arrests Per Capita: 18

National Rank for Raw Arrests: 49

2010 Raw Arrests: 1,191

Photo: Flickr/Blind Nomad

Prev Next

5. Vermont

National Rank for Arrests per Capita: 48

2010 Arrests Per Capita: 119

National Rank for Raw Arrests: 51

2010 Raw Arrests: 737

Photo: Flickr/Victor

Prev Next

4. New Hampshire

National Rank for Arrests per Capita: 33

2010 Arrests Per Capita: 210

National Rank for Raw Arrests: 41

2010 Raw Arrests: 2,769

Photo: Flickr/Blind Nomad

Prev Next

3. Rhode Island

National Rank for Arrests per Capita: 31

2010 Arrests Per Capita: 214

National Rank for Raw Arrests: 43

2010 Raw Arrests: 2,243

Prev Next

2. Maine

National Rank for Arrests per Capita: 30

2010 Arrests Per Capita: 214

National Rank for Raw Arrests: 40

2010 Raw Arrests: 2,842

Prev Next

1. Connecticut

National Rank for Arrests per Capita: 23

2010 Arrests Per Capita: 247

National Rank for Raw Arrests: 25

2010 Raw Arrests: 8,815

Prev Next

Number One Overall

Washington D.C.

National Rank for Arrests per Capita: 1

2010 Arrests Per Capita: 846

National Rank for Raw Arrests: 34

2010 Raw Arrests: 5,115

Photo: Flickr/Torben Hansen


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