As drug and law enforcement agencies find a growing link between prescription pain killers and heroin use, they’re trying to attack the problem of abuse and overdose from multiple sides.
Among their allies are those doling out prescription medication: pharmacists. A little more than 200 southwestern Pennsylvania pharmacists are in Pittsburgh through Friday for a conference hosted by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
“Eight out of 10 new heroin users in this country say they’ve used heroin after becoming addicted to prescription opioids,” said Gary Tuggle, special agent in charge with the DEA Philadelphia division. “These opioids are highly addictive. About 120 a day are dying from overdoses. Half of those, more than half of those, are dying from the misuse and abuse of prescription opioids.”
Opioid addiction is leading to an uptick in heroin users and has spread the addiction to people in all socio-economic, age and ethnic groups. That’s because heroin is less expensive than prescription opioids, he said. For someone who is addicted and can’t get a prescription, a 30-mg tablet of Oxycontin would run about $30 on the street, according to Tuggle. A bag of heroin runs between $5 and $10, which consists of one-tenth of a gram.
So where do pharmacists come in?
“They are oftentimes the first line of defense with it comes to identifying folks who are doctor shopping or practitioners who are running pill mills,” said Tuggle.
“Doctor shopping,” meaning addicts and people who want to sell medications illegally visit more than one physician looking for multiple prescriptions. Another issue is theft of pharmaceuticals.
Conference speakers have emphasized pharmacists' responsibility to ensure secure inventory and vigilance when verifying prescriptions are legitimate, as there has been an increase in forged prescriptions nationwide, according to Tuggle.
The conference is part of the DEA’s 360 Strategy, an effort to stop the cycle of prescription opioid and heroin abuse by going after drug trafficking organizations and partnering with social service organizations and health care professionals. In November, the agency announced that Pittsburgh would be the first pilot city to implement the plan.
“It is an epidemic, and we’re losing 120 a day,” Tuggle said. “If we were in a war zone, those (numbers) would be considered mass casualties.”