Jeremiah Daley oversees a multimillion-dollar narcotics enforcement agency that reports directly to the White House. Yet, illicit substances like heroin, cocaine and marijuana aren’t atop his agenda when he speaks to community groups like the 7th Police District Advisory Council.
Daley wants to talk about the insidious threat posed by prescription medications. His “Prescription for Addiction” presentation shared many alarming facts during the 7th PDAC’s monthly meeting on April 17 at American Heritage Federal Credit Union.
For example, after alcohol and marijuana, prescription medications are the most-abused category of drugs in the country, said Daley, a former Philadelphia police inspector who has spent the last decade as executive director of the Philadelphia-Camden High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area branch of the president’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. In short, Daley works for the nation’s “Drug Czar.”
Further, the United States leads the world in prescription drug consumption, including 80 percent of the painkiller meds manufactured worldwide. Sales of prescription painkillers have increased by 300 percent since 1999. Prescription overdose-related deaths also have tripled since 1999.
“This is a big issue from a business ethics standpoint,” Daley said. “The pharmaceutical companies bear a big part of the responsibility for this because they are making a tremendous amount of money from it.”
About 2.7 percent of Americans use prescription drugs “nontherapeutically,” Daley said, meaning that those folks aren’t using them as part of a medical treatment program. The most-abused medications include painkillers (some derived from the opium plant and others synthetic), stimulants usually prescribed to treat conditions such as ADHD and depressants (often called tranquilizers). Some over-the-counter meds are abused often, too, notably cough and cold medicines.
Statistically, the 12 to 25 age group has the highest rate of initiating prescription drug abuse. Girls ages 12 to 17 have the highest rate among females, while young men ages 18 to 25 are highest among males. Abuse spans all ethnicities and socio-economic groups, however.
According to Daley, 38,000 Americans die annually from overdoses, which is more than traffic accidents or gunfire. Almost 60 percent of those deaths are prescription drug-related. Three out of four prescription drug overdose deaths involve painkillers. More people die from prescription drug overdoses than from heroin and cocaine overdoses combined.
From a prevention standpoint, the Office of National Drug Control Policy is trying to attack the source, Daley said. When asked where they get prescription drugs, young abusers often say they are available in their own homes. Abusers often take the medications that their parents or grandparents store in their medicine cabinets. Also, a lot of young people get the meds from their classmates at school, Daley said.
Meanwhile, some unscrupulous doctors, pharmacists, patients and drug dealers have turned prescription med distribution into a business. Narcotics investigators at the local, state and federal levels have been working together to take down these “pill mills.” Typically, “ringleader” dealers will recruit bogus patients who will go from doctor to doctor, complaining about pain just to get prescriptions. The patients then take the paper scripts to a pharmacy to get the pills, then they deliver the pills to the dealers in exchange for cash. Sometimes, the doctors and pharmacists know what’s going on and get cuts of the proceeds.
Prescription drug abuse begets other crimes in the community, too, as addicts commit robberies, burglaries, thefts and prostitution to finance their habits. Financial crimes such as embezzlement and identity theft may also be linked to underlying drug abuse. Abusers can choose a different route when the cost of their habit starts growing. Many move to cheaper drugs. Opiate painkillers are more expensive than heroin, but they give abusers similar highs. So many abusers get their first taste through prescription meds, then move to heroin.
“It’s not much of a leap. It’s the same physical effect on the body,” Daley said. “It’s cheaper to buy heroin. It’s cheaper to buy a bag than to go to the movies. The opiate addict is realizing that.”
According to Daley, the Obama administration has adopted a four-point strategy to rein in prescription drug abuse. The education component seeks to teach youths, parents and healthcare providers about the dangers of abuse and lax control over medication inventory. The monitoring component involves creating a national prescription database that networks across all pharmacies.
The administration is further trying to promote proper disposal of unused medications by conducting many drop-off events at government buildings. Locally, three Northeast firehouses had drop-off events on April 26. Unused meds should not be flushed down a toilet because they can contaminate the water supply. The fourth component is enforcement, including investigations and regulatory compliance with applicable laws. ••