News 12 at 6 o'clock, May 7, 2009
AUGUSTA,Ga. --- They are the drugs of choice for teenagers and adults. They pick them over cocaine, over heroine, and over meth.
We're talking about prescription drugs.
Tonight, in a News 12 special assignment, Lynnsey Gardner is helping to break down the stereotypes so you can get real about the dangers lurking in a bottle near you.
The Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency says prescription drug abuse is so out of control, the problem now outweighs that of street drugs, by a long shot.
Prescribed pills are more abused and more prevalent than ecstasy, cocaine, heroine and meth. Prescription drugs now come in second only to marijuana.
"The prescription drug problem exceeds that of the street drugs by 50 to 75 percent." And Joe Arp should know, he's a registered pharmacist and a certified law enforcement officer working as a field agent with the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency since 1982. "When I was growing up, we didn't offer other people our medication, nowadays it's common place."
And Arp says the abuse problem is skyrocketing. "It seems day by day."
Between 1992 and 2003, adults abusing prescription drugs rose 81%; teen abuse rose 212%; and the number of teens abusing prescription opoids alone, or prescription strength pain killers, rose 542% and this latest data is already seven years old.
"The numbers have doubled in the last five years, it's exploded, it's huge." Tim Robinson works with all types of substance abuse problems at Bradford Health Services in Augusta. He knows illegal prescription drugs are gaining ground. "That's what so sad, Lynnsey. I have a lot of people who are spending a lot of money on opiate medication just so they can feel normal and unfortunately, by the time people reach me, the enjoyment and the high is long gone."
But he's more than an administrator and a licensed counselor, he's also a recovering addict himself. "Alcohol mainly, but also cocaine were my two problematic drugs. Well, lots of them, I did lots of things."
And he knows kicking a habit is hard. "I've gotten clean and sober more than once."
But thankfully Robinson says for him, illegal prescription drugs weren't as popular then as they are now.
Robinson, "A lot of time initiation starts in middle school, 7th and 8th grade."
A scary thought and consider this, teens are five times more at risk of abusing prescription drugs than marijuana, 12 times more at risk than heroine, 15 times more so than ecstasy, and 21 times more likely to abuse prescribed pills than cocaine.
"Young people try these and they don't know how powerful they are and unfortunately they go to bed and they don't wake up." says Robinson.
But a wake up call is what both men say is exactly what the doctor ordered.
Robinson, "It is really spreading into all areas of our society and it's one of the most dangerous problems we face as Americans now."
Gardner, "And people don't realize it."
Robinson, "No, and that's the sad thing."
But Special Agent Arp and his agency are doing what they can to stop the doctor shopping, stop the forged prescriptions, and Internet pharmacies, and to crack down on the physicians abusing their power to make a quick buck. Like a Wrens doctor arrested in Jefferson County in 2007.
"Ninety percent of physicians do a good job, and in any profession, you have some bad apples who will do anything for money." says Arp.
An illegal drug ring with a suspected 200 patients involved. It took agents two and a half years to make the bust. An investigation that may have been shorter, if Georgia had a prescription monitoring program.
It's passed in 38 states throughout the country, including South Carolina, but failed to pass the state house in Georgia this year.
Arp. "It brings us to the here and now." He who oversees 21 counties and says it would allow the state's 10 agents to work cases in a matter of days, rather than weeks or months.
Gardner, "But is it an invasion of privacy?"
Arp, "That has been the biggest opponent is everyone worries about big brother? Does someone know more than they should about me?"
But, Arp says it's information they can already get, the program would just take the footwork out of it by putting all of our prescription information at agents fingertips in a computer for our doctors and pharmacists to check as well.
"Sometimes the wheels of government grind slowly, but that's reality." explains Arp.
Gardner, "Do you think the problem is going to get worse, before it gets better?"
Arp, "Yes, yes I do."
The Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency says the prescription monitoring program has already passed in South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, and it's about to pass in Florida, meaning Georgia is surrounded.
And that's something the drug abusers know too. Agents say there are already increased reports of more drug users coming here to get their illegal prescription medication.
Special Agent Arp says Augusta is potentially at an even greater risk because it's a border city with an interstate providing abusers quick access in and out of town.