A national report revealed Thursday that more people than ever need treatment for addiction to pain pills. Admissions for therapy more than quadrupled in the last decade across the U.S., a trend mirrored in Florida.
In 2008, pain reliever abuse was involved in almost 10 percent of admissions for treatment of teenagers and adults, up from 2 percent in 1998 nationwide. Southern states reported the highest numbers, and the rise was especially pronounced among people ages 18 to 34.
The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report was released Thursday by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, calling prescription drug abuse the nation's fastest-growing drug problem.
The new data come on the heels of a state report showing that the prescription painkiller oxycodone last year killed a record number of Floridians, especially in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
The extent of the crisis is not news to staff and patients at the Drug Abuse Comprehensive Coordinating Office main campus in east Tampa. Along with counseling, the DACCO program offers methadone and suboxone treatment for people who have been addicted to opiates for at least a year. Of the more than 400 people currently participating, about 80 percent were abusing prescription pain pills rather than heroin, said Keith Carpenter, director of opioid treatment.
"(They think) 'I'm more status-bound if I'm taking a pill. I'm not like the junkies,' " he said, explaining how pain pill abusers think they are different from street drug users. "It's the same effect. It does the same devastation."
Carpenter noted that roxicodone or oxycodone can be more easily obtained than heroin in the South, earning these pain pills the nickname "hillbilly heroin." He said many addicts will crush, snort and even inject the medications into their veins to get high faster.
Karalyn Goldberg, 39, tried to quit on her own, but the withdrawal symptoms were so miserable that she kept returning to the pills.
"Your stomach feels like you've got forks in it, twisting it. Your muscles, your organs are just sitting there grinding away, because you're not feeding your body what it wants," Goldberg said.
Now nearing the end of her treatment in DACCO's residential program, her third attempt at rehabilitation, Goldberg feels she is ready to stay clean. Both she and her husband became addicted to pain medications after accidents. Over a four-year downward spiral, they lost custody of their two daughters and ended up homeless.
The Tampa woman has confronted the emotional triggers that led her to abuse pain pills. But it didn't help, she said, that they were so easy to get.
"The pills were right there on the street. You can buy them anywhere. You didn't have to fill a prescription," she said. "We had a cell phone full of numbers. It was nothing but people with pills."
Efforts to crack down on prescription drug abuse in Florida have escalated in recent weeks with high-profile police raids on pain clinics. The state Legislature has passed new laws aiming to curb the practice of doctor shopping and to crack down on physicians prescribing illegitimately. Law enforcement is dedicating more resources to catching pain pill abusers.
But the new national figures show the problem has become deeply entrenched in a wide range of communities.
The report showed it's affecting men and women, the highly educated and high school dropouts, the employed and the unemployed. Admissions for treatment among whites increased 350 percent.
And the addicts are disproportionately young. More than 13 percent of people ages 18 to 34 seeking substance abuse treatment were taking prescription pain pills
The report called for doctors and public health officials to help people understand the dangers of abusing prescription pain medications as well as the treatment options. At www.samhsa.gov, people can look up treatment programs by state.
People also need to know that recovery takes more than getting the drugs out of a person's system, noted Carpenter, the DACCO director: "You need some support to help you negotiate life as you come off these various drugs, because, let's face it, there is a reason you did it in the first place."
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3322. For more health news, visit www.tampabay.com/health.