Arizona fights legal drug epidemic

Arizona fights legal drug epidemic

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Arizona has the sixth highest drug overdose mortality rate in the United States, according to a new report. And just 23 percent of Arizona physicians use a state database created to track this growing epidemic.

The October report, Prescription Drug Abuse: Strategies to Stop the Epidemic, was released by the Washington, D.C.-based Trust for America's Health. It details a national epidemic in the abuse of legal drugs that is only escalating.

"We are way up there and we are not the biggest state, but per capita we are number six. That is scary," said Dean Wright, the director of the state's Prescription Monitoring Program and a member of the Arizona State Board of Pharmacy.

According to, fifty Americans die each day from prescription drug overdoses. In Arizona, 490 deaths involved prescription narcotic drugs in 2010, the most recent year for which data was available. This was an increase of more than 50 percent from 2006.

Medicine, available both through prescription and over the counter, comes with a promise to make us feel better, and Wright said that is part of the problem with prescription and over-the-counter medicine abuse.

"That is part of the problem because they (consumers) think they are safe," Wright said. "They (pills) are approved by the FDA; they are prescribed by a doctor."

In 2007 Arizona adopted a Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) but it wasn't until 2008 that data began being collected.  According to the State Board of Pharmacy website, "The Controlled Substances Prescription Monitoring Program is a program developed to promote the public health and welfare by detecting diversion, abuse, and misuse of prescription medications classified as controlled substances under the Arizona Uniform Controlled Substances Act."  Essentially, the program monitors schedule II through IV substances, leaving out schedule I controlled substances, like marijuana and heroin which have "no currently accepted medical use in the United States," according to the U.S. Department of Justice, and Schedule IV controlled substances, like cough medicines, which the DOJ says have a "low potential for abuse."

While the law requires all practitioners and anyone with a Drug Enforcement Administration license to register for the monitoring program, use of the data is not mandatory. Wright said, as of this year, only 23 percent of physicians in Arizona use the database.

"We need to increase that," Wright said. "We encourage them to (use it) and we continue to do that but it doesn't require it," Wright said of the current law. "There have been a few states that have required it that they have to use it. We haven't gone that route yet and we are hoping we don't have to," Wright said.

Wright says there are practitioners that do not really need to use it, and prescribers that do not prescribe controls at all, even though they have a DEA license. Although he is unsure of the precise numbers of practitioners who fall into this category, Wright described it as a "generalization" that happens.

The "Arizona Prescription Drug Misuse and Abuse Initiative" was launched in 2012 in an effort to decrease prescription and medicine abuse in the state. Working with law enforcement, medical personnel and prevention groups, the initiative has five goals: to reduce illicit acquisition and diversion of prescription drugs, to educate prescribers and pharmacists and emphasize responsible prescribing, to enhance prescription drug practice and policies in law enforcement, to increase public awareness about risks associated with prescription drug misuse, and to build resilience in children and adults.

The pilot program encourages a "grassroots" effort, talking to doctors and pharmacists about the benefit of using the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.  Three pilot programs involving four counties: Yavapai, Pinal and Graham/Greenlee adopted methods meant to target abuse.

"The idea was, let's get our practitioners to see the benefit and to use it," Wright said. "We are going to push for that, if it comes to it, yeah, we may have to make it mandatory under certain conditions but we would like to not have to do that."

Yavapai County finished its year-long pilot in September.  Wright, citing data, says the number of prescribers who signed up went from 11 percent to 47 percent.

Wright, who helps to oversee the three year-long pilot programs, says the plan is to eventually implement the program statewide.  Mojave County began implementing the program on Oct. 1.

"We want to reduce the number of deaths," Wright said about his fear if nothing is done to stop prescription drug and medicine abuse now. "That's a lot of people dying every day in our nation."

The Pima County Community Prevention Coalition is working to combat the problem of prescription drug and medicine abuse on a local level.

"It takes multiple strategies to impact a problem like Rx drug misuse," said Amy Bass, the director of prevention at Compass-SAMHC Behavioral Healthcare. "You have to get parents talking to their kids as well as taking safety measures, like parents locking up their meds and safely disposing of expired or unused medicines. It is not enough to just talk about it, you have to remove the drugs from their reach."

Coming up Thursday and Friday on KOLD News 13 Live at 10, we will have much more on this story, including the story of a local mother who lost her son to prescription pain killers.  You also will meet a young girl who came to Tucson to recover from her addiction to prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs.  On Friday, learn more about how the state and Pima County are targeting the problem of prescription medicine abuse.


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