Prescription Painkiller Addiction on the Main Line

The dissemination of prescription painkillers has spawned a new wave of addiction. As doctors and other healthcare professionals scramble to mitigate the damage in our region, many are succeeding in unexpected ways.

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Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan loosened the Taliban’s control of the poppy fields, triggering overproduction of heroin and lowering its cost sharply in the illicit drug trade. Consequently, heroin use spiked, many addicts switching from
prescription meds when they dried up or grew too expensive. The reverse also holds true. “Some patients take prescription drugs to stave off [heroin] withdrawal,” says the Malvern Institute’s Dennis Deal. “Once you get hooked, the amount you need goes up.”

And along with it, the cost, leading to criminal means to get the money—a familiar pattern. For two decades, Deal served as clinical director at Eagleville Hospital, the only one in the state specializing in substance-abuse treatment. He’s
especially concerned about the growing tendency for users to snort or swallow powerful, time-release pills after crushing them. It approximates the “rush” of injected heroin.

Bob Stutman, a former high-profile Drug Enforcement Association official, shares Deal’s apprehension. “When a kid smoked too much marijuana, he didn’t die,” says Stutman. “With PCP, he didn’t die. But kids using opioid drugs—one minor mistake, and they can die.”

The numbers back him up. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in this country, with opiates accounting for about two-thirds of the cases. The leading cause of death overall among 15- to 25-year-olds is drug abuse, again with opiates being the main culprit.

Locally, the trend is unsettling. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, 345 deaths resulted from accidental drug overdoses in Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Bucks counties combined in 2009. Shockingly, that represents a 100 percent increase in Chester County alone compared to 10 years earlier—and a spike of 84 and 74 percent in Delaware and Montgomery counties, respectively.

The tally for lives derailed or ruined is far greater.

Jessica’s plan has produced positive results: eight months clean and a new lifestyle. She maintains her own apartment, attends community college, and is entrusted with closing down the restaurant where she works. Such stability is a huge departure from her desperate days of using. But her father knows all too well that life is fragile. “She wants to be a drug counselor,” he says. “Every day is a jorney for her.”

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