May 14, 2014 - Part 1 of a series on prescription drug abuse
Joe used to be happy, until a few years ago when everything in his life changed after a friend handed him a pill.
Joe (not his real name) is a Clarkston-area lawyer, a white collar worker, not the kind of person you would think of as a drug addict. After taking just one or two pills for a while, he started taking more and more of the prescription drug Vicoden, until the day came when he could take 15 or more without feeling anything.
Joe said he now needs the pills everyday or he is sick. When he first started taking the pills, he admits he thought of prescription drugs differently than streets drugs.
"I never thought prescription drugs were not as bad as drugs like cocaine or heroin," he said.
Lt. Brent Miles, commander of the Oakland County Sheriff's Narcotics Enforcement Team, said he has seen the prescription drug abuse problem grow since 1994, when he joined the team.
The problem is considered an epidemic in big cities as well as small towns like Clarkston, Miles said.
"We have been very busy," he said.
Since 1999 prescription drug abuse, and overdose deaths have exploded, and is now the leading cause of death over auto accidents. Both abuse and death rates have run parallel with an explosion in narcotic prescriptions written by doctors.
Opiate pills include drugs like oxycontin, hydrocodone and hydromorphone—among others. Stimulants are also abused, many times by college students who say it helps give them the boost they need while studying for an exam.
When it comes to prescription drug abuse it's not always the kind of person you picture as an addict. It's the successful lawyer, soccer mom, soldier returning from war, and average Joe who are addicted to prescription drugs.
Joe is among an estimated 15 million people addicted to prescription pain medication. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control reported 14 overdoses per 100,000 residents in Michigan.
Now authorities are seeing another epidemic explode as prescription drug users turn to heroin as a cheaper and more obtainable replacement to pills.
The Drug Enforcement Agency said prescription drug abuse poses the most significant threat to the United States.
Although the abuse problem is an alarming epidemic, the US is just in the beginning stages of addressing the problem.
A town hall meeting was held on April 16 in Oakland County regarding the heroin epidemic authorities say is tied to prescription drug abuse.
Miles said prescription drug abusers are turning to heroin to feed their opiod dependency because the cost is increasing while the availability of pills is decreasing.
"There is a dirty stigma attached to drugs like heroin or cocaine, but people think medication is not as dirty because it is prescribed by a physician," said Miles.
Users get addicted for a variety of reasons.
Miles said sometimes it begins after they get into a car accident and are prescribed opiate medications, they get addicted and then the prescription runs out and they can't get it anymore so they turn to what's readily available – heroin.
"Narcotic medications and heroin are from the same plant, the poppy plant," he said.
Miles said it is very frustrating for law enforcement because they get calls from family and friends who have loved ones abusing prescription drugs, but when law officers raid a house, the person has a prescription.
"If they have a prescription there is nothing you can do," he said. "What we look for is physicians who are over prescribing medication."
Next week,the series continues about prescription drug abuse. .
Staff writer covering Independence Township and Clarkston area.