ECM editorial: Recognizing drugs as a serious threat

oped0618 ECM editorial health logoWEBTanner James Pap of Lino Lakes was hoping to counsel others on the dangers of drug abuse. Instead, he died from a heroin overdose as a student at the University of Minnesota in 2012. He was 21.

Nick Moore of Fridley, a 25-year-old bioengineering student at the University of Minnesota, died of a heroin overdose in 2012, using the drug to help dull the pain for a shoulder injury sustained during a rugby match.

Miranda Gosiak, 19, died of a heroin overdose in 2012 after the invasive drug found its way from the streets of Minneapolis to the serenity of Little Falls.

We are losing people at an alarming rate in Minnesota because of heroin use and opiate abuse. Opioids are drugs that are commonly prescribed by physicians throughout Minnesota and generally end up in medicine cabinets where others have access to them. The heroin being consumed in Minnesota is now considered among the purest that comes out of Mexico, the main supplier of heroin to Minnesota. Because of its purity it doesn’t take much for an abuser to overdose.

One of the state’s foremost experts on prescription opioid and heroin abuse is Carol Falkowski. In her work at Hazelden Foundation, Falkowski worked in various capacities involving research, public policy and communications. She has also worked at the Minnesota Department of Human Services as director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division. Today, she operates Drug Abuse Dialogues, offering training workshops about drug abuse.

She spoke with the ECM Editorial Board late last year and shared some startling facts. Nationally, 35 million people have used prescription pain relievers for non-medical reasons at least once in their lifetime. Roughly 12 million have reported doing so in the past year. The amount of Oxycodone seized by law enforcement in Minnesota increased by 174 percent from 2010 to 2011. Heroin arrests rose 90 percent during that same stretch. In just one year, from 2010 to 2011, addiction treatment admissions for heroin rose 47 percent in Minnesota. In Hennepin County, 69 opiate-related deaths were reported in the first half of 2013 alone. That compared with 84 for all of 2012.

The marriage between prescription opiates and heroin is the story of two paths that converge out of convenience and ultimately, necessity. In November 2013, just a single month, 106,153 prescriptions for Hydrocodone were prescribed in Minnesota. It represented 20 percent of all prescriptions dispensed that month. Most of those prescription drugs get used for legitimate pain relief. But many also end up being abused by the patient or somebody else in the family who has access to them. As abuse of prescription medication progresses, many users discover they can often purchase heroin for less than prescription medication. And adults are not the only abusers. The largest national study of adolescents shows that 15 percent of high school seniors reported using prescription drugs in 2012.

It is paramount we recognize this problem now. Parents need to be ever vigilant of the dangers prescription meds pose for adolescents in their homes. They also need to familiarize themselves with the danger signs that accompany drug abuse: withdrawal from responsibilities, being verbally or physically abusive, defiance of authority, mood swings, lying, weight loss or gain, sloppy appearance and excessive amount of time spent in their rooms.

As a society we should not expect some faceless expert to fix this problem. It will take all our efforts. Doctors must educate themselves more extensively about opiate prescriptions, addiction treatment, and become more effective at identifying substance abusers. The courts must continue to aggressively prosecute suppliers. These are the drugs that are killing people from our communities. We need to recognize that and hold accountable those people who make it possible. Law enforcement should also consider partnerships with school districts, as Eden Prairie is planning for 2014-15, to implement curriculum specific to the migration of prescription drugs to heroin use.

We need to continue drug take-back events, ridding our homes of excess prescription drugs so the temptation is removed. More organizations such as Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge should continue to work with students, sharing frank details about the dangers of drug abuse and the lives it has altered or extinguished.

And finally, parents must play the most important role in this process. Adolescents learn from what they see and parents are the best role models they likely have. Parents should never be afraid to talk with their children and ask them probing questions about their friends, their activities and their interests. They need to know adults support them; even when difficult discussions are necessary.

There is so much in this world that we cannot control, but this is not one of those areas. We just need to recognize it as a serious threat and protect our families now.

An opinion of the ECM Publishers Editorial Board

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