Oxycontin in suburbia

Our view: Abuse of prescription medications in Harford County shows addiction isn't just a city problem

July 31, 2011

Mention the war on drugs, and most people conjure up images of poor inner-city neighborhoods terrorized by desperate addicts and violent drug gangs. But addiction isn't just big-city problem. Across the country, rural and suburban communities are waging their own quiet struggle against the scourge of drug abuse. And as Harford County officials have recently been forced to acknowledge, it's becoming an increasingly uphill battle.

At a bail hearing this month for a 42-year-old Aberdeen man accused of distributing illegal prescription drugs, Assistant State's Attorney Diane Adkins-Topin told the judge that "the number one problem drug in Harford County is now Oxycontin." Abuse of the powerful, opium-derived painkiller has reached epidemic proportions in the county, say police, who also have seen a recent uptick in robberies at pharmacies stocking the drug and in petty thefts by people who steal to pay for their addiction.

On the same day Ms. Adkins-Topin convinced the judge to raise the bail requirement for the alleged Aberdeen drug dealer, the court also heard the case of a Havre de Grace woman accused of selling five Oxycontin pills to an undercover officer for $100 and that of an unemployed, 21-year-old Sparrows Point woman charged with theft of under $1,000 and drug possession. As the day proceeded, it became clear that Oxycontin is a far bigger problem in the county than heroin, cocaine or marijuana.

In fact, prescription medications are now the second most abused drug in the country, still coming in behind marijuana but ahead of heroin, cocaine and the hallucinogens. Oxycontin, which is also sold under the generic name Oxycodone, was once regarded mostly as a problem for impoverished rural communities in Appalachia, where it first became popular as a recreational drug in the late 1990s. But since then it has spread to suburbia and major metropolitan areas nationwide, where it exacts a terrible toll among young people in particular, who often fail to recognize that its effects on the mind and body are just as devastating as other narcotics.

Illegal drug use in America is now at its highest level in history, despite the decline in the popularity of some of the more traditional drugs. Over the last 20 years the number of people abusing prescription drugs has risen more than 500 percent by some estimates. Communities will need to address this shift in illegal drugs on a broad front using all the resources at their disposal.

To their credit, Harford officials heard the wake-up call and aren't in denial about their county's drug problem. They should be heartened by the fact that recent advances in addiction medicine and access to treatment are helping addicts reclaim their lives and become productive members of society.

But helping prescription drug abusers kick the habit will only put a dent in the problem unless effective education and prevention strategies are put in place to help people avoid becoming addicted in the first place. The county needs to develop a comprehensive approach to early identification of those threatened by addiction, followed by rapid intervention and long-term recovery support similar to the model used by Baltimore City. That may be the biggest challenge of all in rural and suburban communities like Harford, where officials may have traditionally seen drug abuse and addiction mainly as something that happened outside their borders. Now that it's turned up in their own backyard, the burden falls squarely on them to do something about it.

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