Addicts' use of prescription drugs increasing in county, officials say

Suburb-led abuse trend overwhelms resources

March 02, 2003|By Jennifer Blenner | Jennifer Blenner,SUN STAFF

Prescription drug abuse has increased in Harford County, according to Joe Strovel, director of addiction services for the Harford County Health Department.

In the past year, he said, he has noticed an increase in the use of painkiller OxyContin and other prevalent prescription drugs such as the cough-suppressant hydrocodone. It has become a big problem, he said.

Many younger people abuse prescription drugs thinking they won't become addicted, he said, but they develop a physical dependency to the drug.

"In three years, our census went from 120 clients to 480 clients," Strovel said. To combat the increasing number of addicts, the county has created more programs.

Vickie Walters, a licensed clinical social worker and program director of the Center for Addiction and Pregnancy at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, said the majority of people with prescription-abuse problems are now coming from the suburbs.

"There have been nine pregnant women in the last six months from Harford County" at the Center for Addiction and Pregnancy, Walters said.

The problem begins within the counties, she said.

"Often a woman will go to a physician and complain and [is] prescribed medication for pain, and there is not a lot of follow-up," Walters said.

`It's that easy'

This was the case for Miriam Landa, 30, of Havre de Grace, who was prescribed pain medication for a fractured back from a car accident. She continued to take Lortab, a pain medication. Her struggles with addiction date back 18 years.

"It's as easy as buying a pack of cigarettes," she added. "It's that easy."

She started by taking friends' pills and then stealing doctors' pads. She learned it was safer and easier to call in her prescriptions. She would call in the prescription and then call back during a shift change and pick it up.

"The thing that got me busted was using the same name and same doctor over and over again," Landa said.

Her strategies have changed but most of the time, she said, she looked for a busy pharmacy.

"Do you think they are going to stop and call to verify the prescription? They are so busy" they don't have the time to verify, she said.

Her daily routine stayed constant for years. Each morning, she would take the prescription drug and be good for 10 hours and then go to sleep. She said she would get enough pills for two days and repeat the cycle a couple of days later.

On to her ways

The authorities picked up Landa's trail. "She would lay tracks to get herself caught," said Detective Barry Collier of the Montgomery County pharmacy unit.

"I think she wanted to get caught," he said, "she wanted to end this." Her routine never changed. She would use the same name and same doctor, and the common denominator was always Landa, he said.

Collier has been working in the pharmacy unit for about eight years and said the unit receives more complaints than it can handle.

"The problem has exceeded our ability to work it," he said. Collier said he will be working on one case while three more complaints are reported.

Hydrocodone is the most-abused drug of choice, he said. Prescriptions can be called in, and hydrocodone is gentler on the system and doesn't raise as many red flags as does OxyContin, which people will find rougher on the system, Collier said.

`Have their antenna up'

Howard Schiff, executive director of the Maryland Pharmacists Association and a pharmacist for 47 years, says, however, that it is not that easy to fraudulently get prescription drugs.

"In my opinion, pharmacists always have their antenna up," he said, "and for the most part they are very careful." He said some people do slip through the cracks, but it is not easy.

Drug addicts look for inexperienced, overworked and distracted pharmacists.

"An addict will go to 10 or more pharmacies to find a place that will take their prescription," Schiff said. "It's an evening's work."

Called-in prescriptions, new patients and improperly written prescriptions may raise red flags to a pharmacist, Schiff said.

"It is not a rampant problem, but it is a problem," Schiff said, referring to the number of incidents of prescription drug abuse in the state.

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