Prescription Drug Addiction Skyrocketing In Big Sky Country

Prescription Drug Addiction Skyrocketing In Big Sky Country

More people are dying in Montana from prescription drug overdoses than from all other drugs of any other kind, including illicit street drugs like heroin and cocaine. And officials across the state are ramping up awareness of the problem, while dealing with a serious shortage of resources to treat the prescription drug addiction epidemic.

According to reports from county health departments and law enforcement agencies in Big Sky country, the number of people abusing prescription painkillers statewide has skyrocketed. And the prescription drug addiction disaster has been accompanied by a startling increase in drug-related fatalities.

Some experts are saying that a methamphetamine crisis in the state in recent years obscured the surge in prescription drug addiction and abuse. Addictive narcotic painkillers like OxyContin, methadone, hydrocodone and others actually surpassed methamphetamine as the state's major source of addictions. Meth, officials say, captivated the state's attention and drew heavily on its resources.

"Certainly drug enforcement in the past five or six years has been 95 percent focused on meth, and opiate abuse has really fallen through the cracks," said Mark Long, chief of the narcotics bureau in the state's Division of Criminal Investigation. "At first it seemed like methamphetamine was most prevalent, but then I realized, Whoa! Everyone is addicted to painkillers. We've been facing a decision to either chase down some meth cookers, or grab some people selling pills. So who do you think we went after?"

Toxicology reports from the state crime lab in Missoula reveal that 141 deaths last year were directly related to the abuse of four kinds of prescription pain relievers. That's one death every 2.5 days, all year long. In 324 other deaths, painkillers were present, but were not the primary cause of death. By comparison, methamphetamines killed just eight people in Montana last year.

Deaths from prescription painkillers increased 65 percent since 2001. Opiate abuse, often starting with legal prescriptions, leads to overdoses or full-on prescription drug addiction. Deaths from methadone alone have doubled in the past six years, and many addicts combine it with benzodiazapines such as Valium to create an even deadlier toxic cocktail.

The problem is so serious that officials with the Missoula City-County Health Department announced the agency will be taking a hard look at opiate abuse and prescription drug addiction as a public health issue deserving immediate attention. And law enforcement agencies said they are also reshuffling priorities.

Meanwhile, health care workers are dumbfounded by the lack of resources needed to treat the rising number of addicts. Policymakers feel blindsided by the plight of addiction pouring out of pill bottles and onto the streets, where the drugs are wildly popular, readily available and fueling rampant prescription drug addiction.

Prescription drug addiction can be treated, and victims can recover their lives. But it will require more than a shift in law enforcement priorities. Montana will only overcome the prescription drug addiction crisis by making a strong commitment across the state to provide adequate medical drug detox and rehab facilities to help the thousands of victims.

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