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Drug abuse coordinator: 'We're facing an emergency'

"The Box" sits in the law enforcement entryway.(Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

Misuse and abuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs have seen a "phenomenal increase" since 1990, Jay Jaffee, a drug and alcohol prevention coordinator, told a group assembled Monday night at St. Joseph's.

The statement was not surprising to many. Those attending were professionals who work in the field or are recovering addicts.

"We're facing an emergency," said a representative from the White Earth Band.

"The problem is, we are the suppliers of most of these drugs," said Jaffee, of the Minnesota Department of Health.

The dilemma may have new names, but the issue spans centuries.

Jaffee presented an historical view of patented medications that create addiction. A Coca Cola ad, targeting women, declared the soda to be "the ideal brain tonic," cocaine the key ingredient prior to the 1904 Controlled Substance Act.

Heroin, he noted, was invented by Bayer, who saw it as a wonder drug.

And an 1885 advertisement, with a graphic of children playing, proclaimed cocaine toothache drops to be the "instantaneous cure."

Fast forward to 2011. "The non-medical use and abuse is the same," he said.

'False sense of security'

A report published last month on prescription and OTC drug abuse states about 25 percent of teens admit to abusing prescription medication at least once, 23 percent report abuse of a prescription pain reliever.

Eleven percent of teens have abused OTC cough medications in the past year.

A "new phenomenon" is college students using drugs for the treatment of attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a "study aid" during finals, he said.

"But it's not just a young person's issue," Jaffee said of a study conducted in 2003 that found more than 17 percent of adults over 60, wittingly or not, abuse prescription drugs.

One in six people have used psychotherapeutic drugs non-medically in their lifetime.

"That's an incredible prevalence," Jaffee said of opiates, such as OxyContin, that are prescribed for pain relief; central nervous system depressants, for anxiety or sleep problems, and central nervous system stimulants, for ADHD, obesity and sleep disorders.

And the number of people using prescription pain relievers non-medically has risen from 600,000 in 1990 to 2.2 million in 2009.

The Paul Bunyan Drug Task Force reports 50 percent of their cases now involve pharmaceuticals, reports Sara Bowles, chemical health coordinator for the Hubbard County Youth Drug and Alcohol Task Force.

The most common are the opiates, she said of oxycodone, hydrocodone and Percocet, which are a leading cause of liver damage.

"People have a false sense of security when taking prescribed drugs," she said. "As a nation, we believe they are safe."

Countywide, the abuse of the ADHD prescription drug Adderall is more prevalent among youth than the opiates, Bowles reports. Benadryl, a cough and cold medicine, has been found in middle schools.

OTC drugs, such as cough and cold medications, allergy and sleep aids and weight loss pills "are not benign products," Jaffee cautions. "But a 6-year-old can purchase them."

'A quick fix'

Most people who use drugs don't just use one substance, Jaffee pointed out. "Over-the-counter gives more options," Jaffee said of poly-drug use.

Poly-drug use refers to mixing prescription or OTC drugs and alcohol, marijuana and other drugs. Stimulants are mixed with depressants (cocaine or heroin) - "speedball." And Viagra is combined with alcohol or illicit drugs.

Why the increase? "We are a culture that expects a quick fix," he said. "And we demand it of physicians."

Marketing is also at the root of the problem. New Zealand and the U.S. are the only two countries that allow this advertising, Jaffee pointed out.

When Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin in 1996, they targeted the highest prescribers for opioids across the country, while offering a generous bonus system to sales reps.

Sales grew from $48 million in 1996 to $1.1 billion in 2001. By 2004, OxyContin became the leading drug of abuse in America.

Americans buy much more medicine per year than any other country. More than half of all insured Americans are taking prescription medicine for chronic health problems.

Many people experience a high demand for performance - grades at school, athletics and the business world.

The prescriptions and OTC drugs are perceived as safe and legal products and readily available. Extensive marketing of the products exacerbates the issue.

And they are readily accessible via friends and family, sometimes shared as remedies.

Search starts at home

Bowles recommends getting drugs, prescription and OTC, out of access points. "Don't let grandma leave the pill box on the counter."

Graduation and prom are a "big time for kids," she advises.

"Talk to kids. Give kids a plan. It doesn't get into brains by osmosis," she said of clear rules.

Have a plan in place for instances when a driver is impaired, she said. "Play through the scenario. Plant it. Form a memory."

And give them permission to break a curfew -traditionally an untenable offense - rather than ride with a drunken driver. "Get it into the adolescent brain."

She urges parents and students, middle school and up, to view the Red Bridge Film Fest's "Happy Valley" film, to be shown at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Sunday at Park Theatre.

The Utah-based film is a documentary on the city with the highest ratio of prescription drug abuse in the country.

Discussion afterward includes a Paul Bunyan Drug Task Force agent.

"The search starts at home," the Office of National Drug Control Policy advises.

According to a national survey, 55 percent of kids 12 and older who used pain relievers got them from a friend or relative. Ten percent bought them from a friend or family member and 5 percent stole them.

Research in Utah found 97 percent of individuals who misused painkillers like Vicodin or OxyContin said they got the drug from a friend or relative. site advises parents to move computers from teen bedrooms to a public space in the house.

Many websites provide detailed information on which prescription and OTC drugs to take to get high. Teens often swap info on their drug and alcohol experiences via social networking.

All prescription and OTC drugs, especially painkillers and cough medicines, should be kept in a locked cabinet.

Monitor the number of beer cans and wine and other alcohol bottles in the home. Teens might drink in combination with taking prescription drugs or street drugs, resulting in serious consequences.

"Everyone has a role in this," Jaffee said of stemming the use of chemical substances.