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    Legal drugs kill, too

    Agencies step up education and monitoring efforts as deaths from prescription overdoses climb.

    By ED QUIOCO, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 13, 2003

    Kimberly Hope Rodriguez had been drinking and smoking pot when she decided to swallow half of a green pill marked with the initials "OC." A few hours later, she took the other half.

    Then she went to bed, and never woke up.

    Today, her parents, Margarita and Vincent Rodriguez, share the painful story of their daughter's accidental OxyContin overdose to get the word out, especially to teenagers, that prescription drugs can be deadly.

    "Trust me, they kill," said Vincent Rodriguez, 53, a disabled Vietnam veteran living in St. Petersburg. "They killed my 16-year-old daughter."

    His eyes fill with tears when he talks about Kimberly, whose daughter, Alize, was 3 months old when her mother died two years ago.

    More education is needed, the Rodriguezes believe, to make teens aware of the dangers of prescription painkillers. And more regulation is needed so the drugs are not so easily obtained. Their daughter did not have a prescription for OxyContin and apparently got the pill from someone she knew.

    "If we could save just one," says Rodriguez, "it would mean a lot."

    More and more families statewide are facing similar tragedies as the death toll from prescription overdoses continues its climb.

    The abuse of prescribed narcotics has reached "epidemic proportions," said Jim McDonough, head of Florida's Office of Drug Control.

    The number dying from legal drugs exceeds those dying from street drugs such as cocaine and heroin, McDonough said. Last year, about 2,700 people died in Florida from prescription drug abuse.

    "Consider the enormity of that," McDonough said. "In one state. In one year. It's absolutely mind boggling."

    To combat the trend, law enforcement agencies are stepping up efforts. And at the state level, officials are working with legislators to set up a statewide network to crack down on those illegally obtaining narcotics from doctors and pharmacies. The system also would help identify physicians prescribing drugs recklessly.

    Locally, arrests are up for prescription fraud. "I think it's a lot more prevalent than anyone knows," said Detective Bernie McKenna, of the Pinellas sheriff's narcotics division.

    Addicts are going to pain clinics or doctor offices to try to get prescriptions for oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone or benzodiazepine drugs such as Xanax or Valium. Oxycodone is the morphine-like pain reliever in OxyContin. Methadone has been a treatment for addicts trying to kick an illegal heroin habit. Hydrocodone is another heavy-duty pain reliever sold under brand names such as Vicodin and Lortab.

    "We have seen in the past few years an increase in the abuse of hydrocodone," said Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor. "It's one of those where it's popular for pharmacy fraud."

    Many addicted to prescription medication were introduced to the drugs when prescribed a painkiller for an injury or medical condition. When they try stopping the precribed drug, withdrawal symptoms often can be unbearable.

    "They hate it, but they can't stop," McKenna said. "I think the sad part is there are a lot of people who are getting addicted who shouldn't be getting addicted."

    "Doctor shopping" is one of the most common ways to obtain prescription drugs. Said to be widespread, it is the practice of visiting numerous physicians in hopes of obtaining multiple prescriptions in a short amount of time.

    A counter strategy envisioned by state officials involves setting up a computerized system to track the millions of prescriptions written for narcotic painkillers and other controlled drugs.

    State legislators are considering a bill that would establish the prescription monitoring program. It would enable officials to create a database, funded in part by Purdue Pharma, the Connecticut-based maker of OxyContin.

    The company agreed last year to provide up to $2-million to help set up the program, said James Heins, director of public affairs. Purdue Pharma also agreed to provide $150,000 for educational seminars around the state to train law enforcement officers. The settlement ended a state investigation into the marketing of OxyContin.

    The company points out OxyContin helped more than 2-million people in 2001 relieve moderate to severe pain.

    A study funded by Purdue Pharma also determined about 97 percent of the drug abuse deaths involving oxycodone are related to the ingestion of multiple drugs, Heins said. Published in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology, the study analyzed more than 1,000 deaths in 23 states.

    Prescription drugs have been abused for decades. Now, however, the drugs of choice are more powerful than ever, said the state's McDonough. The high from some of the synthetic drugs can be more powerful than the high achieved from heroin.

    "The synthetics have been getting better and more potent,' McDonough said.

    Methadone is one drug rising in popularity with addicts. Two to three years ago, less than 5 percent of those seeking treatment at Operation PAR would have methadone in their system. Today, 35 percent to 40 percent admitted at PAR are using methadone from doctors and pain clinics, said Gary Wenner, vice president of methodone and laboratory services.

    While there are many good uses for prescription drugs, Wenner said, part of the problem is doctors are too willing to prescribe those narcotics without first determining whether a patient has a history of drug abuse.

    Then, word spreads about which doctors are more likely to hand out those drugs.

    "The patients, they know which doctors out there are willing to write prescriptions," Wenner said.

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