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Prescription drug abuse on rise in county, state

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| October 15, 2009 12:00 AM

The Montana Department of Justice is forming a special drug-diversion unit to combat prescription drug abuse in the state, a solution for an escalating problem county and statewide.

“Prescription drugs in our area have taken over the primary slot as far as the cases we’re getting,” said detective Joe Nagle of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and Northwest Montana Drug Task Force. “It seems to be the most popular.”

A six-person team of three investigators, a public outreach and education coordinator, a prosecutor and an administrative assistant will be funded by a $1.2 million stimulus grant through the U.S. Department of Justice. The special unit, which is expected to operate out of Flathead County, will use a three-pronged approach – prevention, law enforcement and treatment.

Local detectives, prosecutors and drug abuse counselors agree that prescription drug abuse has partially replaced methamphetamine use, which has been dramatically curtailed by aggressive law enforcement, public awareness and legislation restricting the purchase of its ingredients.

“Now the prescription drug problem is worse than the meth problem,” prosecutor Robert Slomski said. “It’s the worst drug problem we have.”

The state Department of Justice, Division of Criminal Investigation, reported that 42 percent of the drug cases it handled this year relate to prescription drugs, up dramatically from only 7 percent in 2003.

Slomski estimates that the number of prescription abuse cases that the county prosecutor’s office sees nearly rivals that of all street drugs combined.

 “We’re getting almost as many prescription drug cases as the illegal stuff like pot and methamphetamine,” he said.

Opiates and synthetic opioids such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, methadone and fentanyl prescribed as strong painkillers are most often abused in Lincoln County, according to Slomski. 

Until recently, the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force – comprised of officers from Lincoln, Sanders, Flathead and Lake counties – was the only drug task force in the state to have a full-time prescription drug diversion officer, a position created in 2004.

Prescription drug overdose is now a bigger killer by far than car crashes in Montana.

“Without grabbing headlines or gaining the notoriety of other dangerous drugs, over 300 Montanans died last year from the abuse of prescription medications,” state attorney general Steve Bullock. 

Slomski recalls several prescription drug overdoses in the county in recent years. Prescription drug abuse was brought to the spotlight in 2007 when a 24-year-old man and 13-year-old girl in Troy overdosed within three months of each other.

Montana ranks third in the nation for teen abuse of prescription painkillers with 9.6 percent reporting abuse in the past year, according to the Department of Justice.

Bullock announced last month the formation of the Prescription Drug Abuse Advisory Council made up of leaders from across the state, including doctors, pharmacists, prosecutors, student leaders, legislators, law-enforcement officers, a nurse and a district court judge.

The group’s purpose is to “identify what the problem is and then formulate a plan to address the issue,” according to Russ Papke, Northwest Montana Drug Task Force commander out of Kalispell and member of the advisory council.

Crimes related to prescription drug abuse are more difficult for law enforcement and prosecutors than that of street drugs, Slomski and Nagle pointed out.

“We catch you with a gram a meth and, boom, we’ve got you,” Slomski said. “We catch you with oxycodone and you’ve got a prescription, then we have to catch you selling it.”

Nagle agreed, “It makes it difficult to enforce.”

Montana is one of 10 states that doesn’t have a database to allow doctors and pharmacists to see a patient’s prescription history, according to Papke. The advisory council is proposing the monitoring program as one step toward alleviating prescription abuse.

(Nickolas Ledden of the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell contributed to this story).