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When the drugs don't work: A look into Lincoln County's drug epidemic

| April 4, 2017 1:25 PM


The Western News

“Since the accident on 56, I’ve noticed a feeling like ‘we’ve had enough.’ This is no longer something that’s someone else’s problem.”

Despite a long and storied history of drug abuse in Lincoln County, Vel Shaver, of Unite For Youth in Libby, has noticed an uprising in the community after the recent death of Laura Cooper, who was killed as a result of an accident where the other driver used meth just prior to the collision. The arrest this week of Patrick Wood, charged with vehicular homicide after the death of Christina Benefield last year, has added to concern as Wood also tested positive for meth.

Both in Lincoln County, and nationally, people are asking: why are innocent people dying? And is the prolific use of prescription drugs, the nation’ ‘opioid crisis,’ directly linked to the use of street drugs like meth and heroin?

“I would say there is definitely a link between opioids and street drug use. Illicit drugs get a lot of press,” Tony Fantozzi, a physician’s assistant at Cabinet Peaks Family Medicine, said. “But I work in the E.R and every week we see overdoses of prescription medicine, usually opioids. When we’re doing random drug testing on our patients, which is part of a contract they sign when first prescribed opioids, often we’re seeing illicit drugs along with prescription.”

Fantozzi and his colleagues were in the front line after Libby Doctor Knecht was found guilty of overprescribing opioids and had his medical license suspended in 2015.

“Our clinic opening coincided with Knecht’s suspension, so we had people who were on more narcotics than a dying cancer patient coming in and when we told them we had to get them to a safe level, so there were a lot of people who were not happy. Now, 15 months later, I can say everyone in that group is at a safe level. I can count on one hand how many have come off them altogether though.”

Vel Shaver and Maggie Anderson of Unite For Youth are among a group of professionals in Lincoln County trying to gather statistics about what kinds of drugs are being used locally, and how users are moving between different drugs. “Next year, due to changes in hospital record keeping, we’ll be able to go in and see emergency room data which will include which drug was involved in each incident” says Anderson.

Unite for Youth’s research shows that more than half of community members responding to a recent survey reported knowing of someone who was struggling with prescription drug abuse. Flathead Valley Chemical Dependency Clinic reports opioid addiction (often co-occurring with alcohol abuse) is now the number one reason for treatment admission.

Gaps in the local supply of street drugs like heroin and meth may account for some users switching to whatever is easy to find locally, such as opioids. “If there is no steady supply, people are so sick without it, so they turn to whatever might make it better” explains Anderson, after drawing a graph which effectively explains how drug users need to keep using more and more just to feel normal. “The fun part ends pretty quickly” Shaver said.

Because prescription drugs are ‘legal’ it’s often misunderstood how potent they can be, and that such a drug is illegal as soon as it is shared, sold, given away or taken in amounts not prescribed. Shaver and Anderson describe focus groups with teens who tell them their parents have talked to them about alcohol and hard drugs, but not prescription drugs.

“I’ve recently filled a prescription to treat opioid addiction” Troy Pharmacist Mike Wells readily recalls “it was last week, actually.”

In a town of under 1,000, Wells says knowing his customers very well, and good communication between local pharmacies is what works to deflect prescription abuse.

“We know there is street use because of the number of syringes we go through” says Wells, “but with pain medications, it’s difficult to see what’s problematic because pain is subjective — there are very few objective parameters to measure pain. The symptoms of someone who needs medication for pain can be similar to those of someone who is withdrawing from addiction — either way, they’re not happy.”

“I’ve had people get very, very angry with me when I’ve denied a fill” says Wells, “the fact that we are right next door to Idaho and Washington makes us a bit of a target if people are shopping around or don’t have a legitimate prescription. We’ll direct people to their regular provider and write ‘denied at Kootenai Drug’ on the prescription.”

Pharmacies also have the option of using the prescription drug registry to check the legitimacy of a script “it’s a great tool” says Wells.

Wells also mentions a proposal which some states have already adopted which would limit opioid prescriptions to five days only in a bid to reduce abuse of prescriptions.

The issue is not, of course, limited to Lincoln County. Officer Brad Dodson of Libby says “this is not just Libby, it’s not just America, it’s a societal problem. We [the police] deal with it daily. Not necessarily arrests, but conversations, and not always with the same people. The reality of addiction is some people just can’t quit.”

Nationally, the issue is topical. On March 29, President Trump met with Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who will advise Trump on the opioid crisis and others at the White House to outline a plan to address opioid addiction and provide better treatment for addiction and regulation of prescription pain medicine.

It’s estimated 91 Americans die every day from prescription opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and for every death, more than 30 others are admitted to the emergency room.

This figure does not take into account that a percentage of these deaths are people who are being treated with opioids at the end of their life, people who are dying of other causes, but whose official cause of death is opioid overdose.

It also does not take into account who are victims of accidents caused by the misuse of prescription drugs.

Research points to a clear connection between prescription use and street use. In other words, a drug is a drug is a drug. “Drug and alcohol addiction doesn’t differentiate” says Shaver “your brain just knows it feels good, and it wants more.”

The National Institute of Drug Abuse reports that drug users in the 1960s generally started their opiate abuse with heroin — over 80 percent. But by the early 2000’s, 80 percent of users reported the initial opiate as a prescription drug, followed by heroin.

Lincoln County has a number of tools available to treat addiction and prevent drug use and it’s associated problems. The Sheriff’s department has introduced prescription drug disposal boxes in all dispatches in the county, so unused opioids and other potentially dangerous or addictive drugs won’t be so available to misuse.

“I’m just trying to think of an analogy for what I’ve experienced of narcotics abuse” says Shaver thoughtfully “addiction, and living with someone who is addicted, is like being in the water drowning. Only you’re not just drowning. They are trying to push you under as well. Addiction can be full blown before even the addicted person notices. It’s characterized by nocturnal activity, so many people won’t know about what’s going on.”

When we think about the costs, to our nation and to our county, of drug use, it’s clear something must be done. “An estimated 550 billion dollars a year is spent cleaning up messes made by drug and alcohol abuse” says Shaver. “Think about the cost, both emotionally and financially, of the accident on 56. It’s clear to us that prevention dollars go much further than clean up dollars.”

Adds Anderson “there are things we can do to prevent these messes. But sometimes, unfortunately, you have to see a big mess before you know there’s a clean up needed.”

There are not currently any narcotics anonymous meetings being held in Libby or Troy. If you or someone you know, needs help with addiction, please contact Flathead valley Chemical Dependency in Libby on 293 8530.