Of course, the drug dealer selling heroin on the street corner is a problem. But officials say an even bigger danger lurks in our medicine cabinets, where bottles of controlled substances — legally labeled and properly prescribed — are becoming more abused.
"Utah has a problem," said Jeffery D. Sweetin, special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Denver field division. "Utah is seen throughout this country as a leader in an area we don't want to be a leader in — abusing the use of pharmaceuticals."
Sweetin explained that in Utah in 2007, 317 people died as a result of prescription overdoses — nearly twice as many deaths as occurred due to overdoses from the traditionally feared street drugs.
On Wednesday, law enforcement officers, legislators, prosecutors and government officials explained their newest, and some said unprecedented, attempt to tackle the growing problem of prescription-drug abuse in Utah.
It's called the Utah Pharmaceutical Drug Crime Project, but it's much more involved than a typical project, Sweetin said.
Because the problem of prescription abuse touches numerous segments of society, the executive committee is broad and includes the DEA, the Salt Lake City Police Department, Utah Department of Public Safety and other law enforcement groups, the Utah Department of Human Services, the FBI and the Utah Attorney General's Office, as well as doctors and medical professionals who see the issue firsthand.
"We have a very serious problem here," said Dr. David Sundwall, executive director of the Utah Department of Health. "This epidemic scourge is sparing no one. It's an equal-opportunity problem that affects us statewide."
But why is it so bad? Prescription drugs aren't illegal, and many people really need them and properly use them.
That's true, officials agree. And they're not trying to prevent pain medication from reaching those who legitimately need it.
But Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank points out that many young kids see prescription drugs as completely safe, because they're from a doctor.
So, they'll sneak a few of mom's OxyContin from the medicine cabinet, and after a while, they're hooked.
"If the medicine cabinet dries up, they start looking elsewhere," Burbank said. "(Then) we see them on the streets of Salt Lake City."
Without quick access to OxyContin, many turn to heroin, a nearly identical, but cheaper, alternative.
The task force's goals are broad and bold: Reduce the availability of prescription drugs for abuse, increase the perception of risk associated with prescription drugs, and make the public less tolerant of using pharmaceutical drugs for non-medical uses.
They'll do this by educating the public, especially children; vigorously prosecuting bad doctors and unethical pharmacists who distribute medications illegally; training medical professionals on how to deal with people who might be addicted; and even passing new legislation to make proper prescription disposal easier.
"We are a pill-popping society … in Utah," said state Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. "While many people would never think of shooting up, smoking a joint, they're used to taking their prescription medication. People don't want to accept this news that so many people are dying. This is a problem we have to wake up to."
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