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Prescription med abuse growing, not quite perceived as a problem

Heather Weddle, chief of pharmacy, NiMiiPuu Health Clinics.

Photo by David Rauzi
Heather Weddle, chief of pharmacy, NiMiiPuu Health Clinics.

KAMIAH – Forget what you know about shady characters in back alleys dealing dope. Idaho’s pressing drug issue – misuse and abuse of prescription medications — comes with the face of a friend or family member, is more accessible than alcohol or other mind-altering substances, and the perception by many is “What’s the problem?”

“It’s not like illegal drugs or what we’ve thought of it as,” said Heather Weddle, chief of pharmacy for NiMiiPuu Health Clinics in Lapwai.

“This problem seems to be growing, and a lot of folks don’t seem to know about it,” Weddle said during a presentation last Thursday, March 12, before the Kamiah Community Partners Coalition, a nonprofit organization focused on keeping kids substance-abuse free. “And it seems to be going on in every community,” she continued, and is not – as the perception may be – an urban or big city problem.

Weddle quoted a national statistic: Idaho is fourth in the nation for prescription drug abuse for those ages 12 and older in the past year.

“So it’s here,” she said.

According to Weddle, 2,500 youth, ages 12 to 17, in the U.S. daily abuse a prescription pain reliever for the first time. In 2012, one in four teens — about five million — reported having misused or abused a prescription drug at least once in their lifetime, a 33 percent increase during a five-year period.

“One of the problems is kids don’t think it’s a problem,” Weddle said, justifying this as not in the same category as traditionally viewed illegal drugs, that these are OK to take to deal with health issues (injury, illness, pain) though not prescribed to them. “Kids have a lot going on these days,” she said, from homework and sports to relationship problems. For prescription meds such as hydrocodone, oxycodone and methadone – all in the same class as heroin – “these give a sense of pleasure, make you numb to what is going on.”

And these meds are accessible: 43 percent of teens reported prescription meds were easier to get than illegal drugs, according to The Medicine Abuse Project. Forget the stereotypical drug dealer, according to Weddle: 40 percent of teenagers obtained meds from family medicine cabinets, and half reported receiving them from a friend or relative.

So what can be the problems? Weddle explained, for example, prescription med abuse bypasses the timed-release component of the drug, putting all of the chemicals into the body right away, resulting in a multitude of effects including dramatic increases in blood pressure and heart rate, organ damage, seizures and death. Prescription med overdoses have more than doubled from 1999 through 2013; and in 2013, 81 percent of overdose deaths were unintentional.

Prescription meds can also serve as a gateway drug to heroin, for example, that is also cheaper. And from here the addiction spirals as more and more of the drug needs to be consumed, as the body becomes used to it, to achieve the same high. Addicts are continually chasing the high and avoiding withdrawal all the time, she said, “and this battle is really hard to win when you’re chasing a high every four hours.”

So what are the solutions for parents? First off, Weddle advised discussing this directly and at an early age, even preschool.

“It’s just like sex: They’re exposed to it way earlier than you plan to talk about it,” she said.

Parents need to discuss the safety issues in prescription med abuse, and they also need to be honest about their past drug use and serve as an example. One study reported those kids who learn about this at home are 50 percent less like to use. Parents also need to be observant of changes in their child’s activities, appearance and friends; to “trust their gut,” if they feel something is wrong. They also need to take an inventory of prescription meds in medicine cabinets — “Can you account for everything that is in there?” Weddle said — and properly dispose of those that are unused or expired; this awareness needs to be explained to extended family, such as grandparents, who may be unwitting suppliers. And there need to be boundaries set for your children.

“They need someone there who cares,” Weddle said, in the absence of which is why they may be turning to prescription med abuse, “and you need to be that person.”


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