Guest Opinions

Solving Idaho’s opioid, heroin problem requires public, professional solutions

Idaho ranks fourth nationally for nonmedical use of prescription pain relievers by persons 12 and older. One in five high school students nationally reports misusing prescription drugs at least once. Each day, 44 people in the United States die from an overdose of prescription painkillers. The United States is the biggest consumer of prescription painkillers, accounting for almost 100 percent of the world total for hydrocodone and 81 percent for oxycodone.

The statistics are frightening. The trend in Idaho toward heroin abuse is equally alarming. Law enforcement leaders throughout Idaho are seeing an increase in heroin use, abuse and availability. Prescription painkillers are synthetic heroin. Once a person is addicted to painkillers, transitioning to heroin is easy. It is cheaper, and increasingly easy to find. Nationally, 80 percent of new heroin abusers started with opioids.

Law enforcement in Idaho is attacking this problem as vigorously as it can. At the federal level, the DEA, FBI and my office have investigated and prosecuted those who divert prescription drugs for unlawful uses. Earlier this year, we successfully prosecuted two Idaho doctors for intentionally distributing prescription painkillers not for a legitimate medical purpose. Juries found that both prescribed unreasonably high numbers of painkillers, often without examining the patients. In June, as part of a task force investigation, officers stopped a car carrying five pounds of heroin in a hidden compartment.

Investigation and prosecution alone are not enough. The opioid and heroin crisis is a public health and community crisis. It demands public health and community solutions. Opioid addiction often begins with a family medicine cabinet that contains unused and unneeded prescription painkillers. Proper and prompt disposal of these medications is critical. The DEA sponsors twice yearly drug take-back days (the next is Oct. 22) at designated locations to ensure that these unneeded medications are responsibly discarded.

Education is also part of the solution. Opioid abuse often begins with an assumption that because painkillers are prescribed by a physician, they are safe. The FBI and DEA developed a 45-minute film, “Chasing the Dragon,” about the lives of opioid and heroin addicts. It is designed for high school and college audiences — those who are most susceptible. Students, teachers and parents must be keenly aware of the dangers posed by prescription drugs and heroin. “Chasing the Dragon” can help.

Health care providers are part of the solution. Last year, my office partnered with law enforcement agencies, Idaho licensing and oversight boards, medical associations, local hospitals and law firms to host a Drug Diversion Summit, which educated health care providers about the dangers of prescription drug diversion and the law enforcement consequences. Our summit, focused on educating health care professionals, is the cooperative approach this crisis demands.

Prevention through Idaho’s prescription drug monitoring program is part of the solution. Through the program, pharmacists must input data on controlled substances at least weekly. Thus, pharmacists can then identify and prevent persons from filling multiple prescriptions in a short period of time. Doctors can identify patients who may be seeking pills to fuel addiction, not treat pain.

Please join Idaho’s law enforcement and health care community as part of the solution to heroin and opioid abuse. Lives depend on it.

Wendy Olson is U.S. attorney for Idaho.