Prescription drug overdoses account for about one death per day in Arkansas and state officials are working with educators, health providers and law enforcement to bring down abuse rates.
Prescription drug overdoses account for about one death per day in Arkansas and state officials are working with educators, health providers and law enforcement to bring down abuse rates. Alcohol remains the most commonly abused drug, but reducing prescription drug abuse is gaining greater significance in the effort. Arkansas Drug Director Fran Flener said that the state's prescription drug take-back program has removed more than 32 tons of medicines from homes, taking those drugs out of circulation. The nation's drug czar, National Drug Control Policy Director R. Gil Kerlikowske, said at an Arkansas conference during the week that most young people who illicitly take a prescription drug get it from a home medicine cabinet. Flener said state policies fit well with the federal effort to stop addressing addiction as a moral failure and treat it as a brain disease. "We're right in line with national policies in terms of our plans for implementation of a strategic plan. In fact, when this plan came out several years ago, we had already started developing along those same lines," Flener said. In some ways the drug fight is a moving target. States, including Arkansas, have had to move swiftly to ban "bath salts" and other synthetic drugs that continue to emerge, and heroin use among young people is on the rise nationally. But prescription drugs in 2010 killed nearly 400 people in Arkansas, 13.1deaths for every 100,000 residents, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to Kerlikowske's office, more than $86 million in federal money filters to Arkansas for myriad anti-drug programs, from outreach for school-age children to help funding drug courts. Flener said the resources are available to address a multi-faceted problem but it takes plenty of work. "We're going to have to be creative. Money is not the answer to everything," she said. "We've got to think. We've got to be smarter than we've been in the past." One example she gave is work by family physicians who are taking steps to steer patients from the risk of addiction. She also noted that Arkansas Children's Hospital is making available an app for educators in all state public and charter schools that will help as a teaching tool. "It is an evidence-based program on substance abuse and a lot of other health issues that is going to be free and available to every teacher in this state," Flener said. Prescription drug abuse rates have been tracking downward nationally in the past couple of years as drug take-back events have been expanding. Take-back events are regularly held around Arkansas and the state Health Department has purchased 60 secure drop boxes that can provide residents with a way to dispose of unneeded prescription drugs at their convenience, Flener said. "Those of us who are in this ... don't want to get complacent in our successes that we have. While we think, well everybody knows about this, they don't, they don't. So we have much education ahead," Flener said. One element of drug education seems almost too simple — convincing people, especially the young, that prescription drug abuse can have dire consequences, she said. "People think that because these pills come from a pharmacist and are prescribed by your doctor they're not harmful. When they are taken in the wrong manner and not according to directions, they are as much or even more harmful than other illicit drugs," Flener said. Data from the Arkansas Crime Information Center shows that in 2008 there were 12,838 drug possession arrests. The Legislature in 2011 approved a sentencing overhaul package that focuses on treatment and rehabilitation for nonviolent offenders. The program is intended to save the state billions of dollars in coming years by eliminating the cost of incarceration and getting drug offenders back supporting their families. An analysis by the CDC shows that 38,329 people in the U.S. were killed by drug overdoses in 2010, up from 37,004 the year before. In 1999, the number of deaths was 16,849. Opiates accounted for 16,651 of those deaths in 2010 and 15,597 in 2009. The agency has classified prescription drug abuse as an epidemic, a point Kerlikowske made clear in his Arkansas talk. Flener and Kerlikowske said the complexity of the issue requires involvement from law enforcement, teachers, doctors, medical and pharmacy schools and families. "I think sentencing reform, just like prescription drugs or any type of substance abuse issue, cuts across a lot of different boundaries and you cannot stay just looking at one issue," Flener said. "It involves so many different aspects of our life and our quality of life and this is definitely one of them."