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    Prescription drug abuse rises in 2001

    More die in Florida from prescription drug overdoses than illegal drugs, such as heroin.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 8, 2002

    For the first time ever, prescription drug overdoses killed more Floridians last year than illegal drugs.

    A report by Florida's 24 medical examiners shows a sharp rise in the number of people overdosing on legal or illegal drugs, mainly because prescription painkillers and street drugs such as heroin are more potent than ever.

    The results are seen in morgues and in drug treatment centers such as those run by Operation PAR, based in the Tampa Bay area.

    "We're seeing more kids with heroin in their systems. You used to have to shoot it up, but now it's so pure that you can smoke it or inhale it," said PAR spokesman Marvin Coleman. "We're seeing an increase in prescription drug abuse and club drugs like ecstasy. You don't hear about cocaine much anymore because of the impact of other drugs, but it's just as serious an issue as it was before."

    Florida's medical examiners performed toxicology tests on 15,000 people who died under violent or unexplained circumstances in 2001. More than 5,000 had drugs in their bodies; more than 3,000 had been drinking alcohol, according to the report released Thursday.

    Medical examiners found lethal levels of illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin or ecstasy in 714 people in 2001, compared with 489 people the previous year.

    In 939 cases, they found lethal levels of prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, methadone and Vicodin, or benzodiazepine drugs such as Xanax or Valium. Last year's 939 cases more than tripled the 284 cases in 2000.

    Florida drug czar Jim McDonough said the rise in drug deaths shows a need for better monitoring of prescription narcotics -- an idea rejected this year by the Florida Legislature. Florida's House and Senate blamed each other when an agreement on a proposed law blew up at the last minute.

    McDonough, director of the governor's Office of Drug Control, said the abuse of oxycodone, the main ingredient in OxyContin and numerous other painkillers, continues to be worrisome.

    "It's a drug abuse that came out of noplace," McDonough said. "There was an epidemic growth."

    OxyContin is now the most frequently prescribed narcotic in the country. The drug's manufacturer points out that millions of people take the drug responsibly to relieve their pain.

    Florida deaths related to oxycodone and its chemical cousin, hydrocodone, rose 45 percent in 2001 compared with 2000. After doctors and the public became aware of the growing death toll, those deaths dropped 14 percent during the last six months of 2001.

    "We saw a decline toward the end of the year; regulation of oxycodone may have been bumped up," said Bill Pellen, director of investigations for the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office.

    Many people who overdose have mixed different drugs together, Pellen said.

    The Tampa Bay area bucked the statewide trend of prescription drugs killing more people than illegal drugs. Locally, record numbers of people overdosed on heroin or cocaine last year.

    In Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties, 58 people died from fatal overdoses of heroin, 35 from cocaine, 26 from oxycodone, 24 from methadone, and 12 from hydrocodone.

    Hydrocodone is sold under 26 brand names, including Vicodin, Lortab and Lorcet. Methadone was once used mainly to treat heroin addicts but is increasingly being prescribed for pain.

    Among all the drugs, heroin has become the Tampa Bay area's biggest killer.

    "Heroin deaths are way up," said Hillsborough Medical Examiner Vernard I. Adams.

    This is a heartbreaking trend for parents such as Dan Johnson of Palm Harbor, whose 21-year-old son Steffan James Johnson died of a heroin overdose last November.

    "It is often perceived that most individuals who die from heroin overdoses are probably 'junkies.' Steffan was not. He was a kind, gentle, loving and caring person who unfortunately was also a recreational drug user," Dan Johnson said.

    "We are losing precious young loved ones to drug overdoses. The sad thing is that they are all preventable."

    -- Information from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale was used in this report.

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