This addiction wears an unfamiliar face. It’s flush and healthy, instead of gaunt and haggard. It’s middle class, not poverty-stricken. In the greater Flathead Valley, as methamphetamine abuse has slightly decreased, the illegal pain pill market has catered to a new kind of drug abuser.
“This is something that’s partially taken (meth’s) place,” Geno Cook, commander of the Northwest Drug Task Force, said. Oxycodone, hydrocodone and other painkillers are increasingly common in the drug trade.
Between 2004 and 2006 the task force investigated 80 cases of prescription drug fraud and illegal possession of painkillers. In the last six months, 40 more have surfaced. Whether the increase means his agency is making inroads is unclear, Cook said, because there are few statistics against which to compare it. The prescription drug trade is a relatively new market, despite the fact that a full-time officer has been assigned to investigate these cases in Northwest Montana for the last three and half years.
It’s a unique job and Cook believes the only such position in the state. The diversion officer who works the beat asked not to be named to protect his identity. He spoke about his first assignment, a case with unusual culprits. A couple, both in their late 60s, were selling medication out of their home to supplement their Social Security income. Dealers, some with warrants out for their arrest, would file in and out of their home. The elderly couple’s caregiver tipped off police.
“These are people like you and me,” the officer said of the abusers.
Cook said one offender “had what we would call the American dream.” He made $70,000 a year, had a nice home and family. “Then he was injured on the job and became addicted to painkillers. He was addicted to the point that he was put in jail. He ruined his finances. He ruined his family.”
The Associated Press recently analyzed U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration statistics and found that oxycodone sales increased by 1,746 percent in Northwest Montana and hydrocodone-based drugs by 205 percent. That’s not unusual. Across the country the percentage of people using painkillers has jumped. Cook was quick to point out that many doctors, and especially pharmacists, have cooperated with investigators when cases of fraud or “doctor shopping” arise. Nonetheless, with more pain drugs prescribed, more are surfacing on the streets of Flathead, Lake and Mineral counties.
“Doctors don’t agree on what’s too many (to prescribe) and what’s not,” the diversion officer said. And, he said bluntly, “People are going to find a way to get high.”
Prescription drugs can sell for twice as much illegally and people are more comfortable using the drugs because they often carry less of a stigma. They weren’t smuggled into the country via speedboat or cooked up in a shady, neighborhood lab. “In people’s minds it’s different when they get high on oxycontin than meth.”
But once addicted, getting clean can be just as hard. The diversion officer said when it’s abused some users refer to pain pills as “prescription heroin.” Many users snort and inject them, and he said one man would even chew on his Fentanyl patch – which should be placed on the skin to treat chronic pain – to get a faster fix.
It’s now common for pain pills to be found when officers investigate illicit drug cases. The diversion officer said one young man told him, “I have never been offered meth, never seen it, but I see pills at parties all the time.”
“There’s no way we can take on all the cases we should right now,” he said.
A bright spot in this otherwise slippery drug trade may be local pharmacists, many of whom participate in an online program to curtail abuse. When the diversion officer sends out an alert of a suspicious person, usually within an hour pharmacists can tell him whether they filled that person’s prescription.
“A lot of those fraudulent (case) calls come through them,” the diversion officer said.
While the number of cases is daunting, the diversion officer takes respite in the fact that many abusers charged can skirt the habit with treatment. Some current abusers were simply in car wrecks or had bad backs, he said. Others don’t even know they’re addicted until they’re confronted about buying the drugs illegally. Then, he hears, “I’ve been taking pain pills for four years, of course I’m an addict.”
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