Painkiller Abuse Moves West

By Sarah Beller 03/11/13

Rates of opioid abuse are down in Southern states, but rising in the West, according to a recent SAMSHA report. 

Opioid abuse pulls a geographic.
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The nationwide painkiller-abuse epidemic that has been particularly acute in Southern and Eastern states is spreading West, according to the latest survey from SAMHSA. In a 2007 SAMHSA survey, Southern and Appalachian states—where highly addictive oxycodone pills were nicknamed "Hillbilly Heroin"—showed the highest rates of painkiller abuse. But now, according to the 2010-11 report, Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Idaho have taken the lead. Residents in Oregon, which tops the list at No. 1, abuse opioid painkillers at a rate of 6.5%, compared with 4.5% of residents in Kentucky, a state which once led the US in opioid abuse. And overdose deaths from painkillers in Oregon rose 172%, from 218 in 2004 to 378 in 2011. 

More than 16,000 people die from opioid overdoses every year. In the absence of a unified federal approach, the fight against painkillers has had uneven success nationwide. The marked reduction of opioid abuse in the South is likely due to multiple efforts, including multiyear public outreach programs that teach proper disposal of painkillers, cutting the number of pills swiped from medicine cabinets. And numerous state laws have hindered the black-market supply. Lawmakers in West Virginia, for example, stiffened penalties for using false information to score prescriptions in 2010. And Kentucky launched a state task force to crack down on overprescribing physicians in 2009. Such efforts helped push its ranking to No. 31 in the SAMHSA report, from No. 6 two years earlier.

But in the West, drug-trafficking rings have sprung up since 2009, according to law enforcement. Addicts and dealers obtain large quantities of oxycodone or hydrocodone from doctors in Nevada and Southern California, where lenient rules have led to pill mills. From there, they transport the drugs to other states. Law enforcement and public health officials in the West are confronting the stark reality of the painkiller epidemic, which is arriving on the heels of their long battle against Methamphetamine abuse. Elisha Figueroa, Idaho's drug-policy administrator, says: "We're just in the beginning stages of grasping the full magnitude of this issue."

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Sarah Beller is a writer and the Executive Director at Filter. She has written about drug policy with a focus on harm reduction for Substance.comThe Fix and Salon. She has worked as a social worker with formerly incarcerated people in New York for a number of years. Her writing has also appeared in McSweeney’sThe HairpinThe ToastReductressThe Rumpus and other publications. You can find Sarah on Linkedin and Twitter.