SALT LAKE CITY — More people died in Utah last year of prescription pain medication overdoses than traffic accidents, according to police and doctors who treat substance abuse patients.
"It's a big problem here in the state of Utah. I'd say we are up near the top in the country, and that's unusual for substance abuse," said Dr. Glen Hanson, director of the Utah Addiction Center at the University of Utah. "For almost every other drug of abuse, whether its tobacco, or alcohol, or cocaine, or heroin, we're usually way down near the lowest in the country."
Furthermore, abuse of prescription pain medication and other pharmaceuticals streches across all ages and walks of life.
On Monday, the Drug Enforcement Agency announced the arrest of Salt Lake City Justice Court Judge Virginia Bauskett Ward, 45, for investigation of drug distribution. Investigators say Ward received a package of 338 oxycodone pills mailed via the U.S. Postal Service from Las Vegas.
She allegedly was going to deliver the pills to someone else, according to the DEA. Law enforcers did not say Monday whether Ward was believed to be abusing the powerful pain medication as well as distributing it.
Her arrest was part of an investigation that began in California. Additional arrests in Utah, Nevada and California are likely, according to the DEA.
Michael Crookston, medical director of the Dayspring treatment programs for chemical dependence at LDS Hospital, said OxyContin abuse has decreased in recent years because drug manufacturers have built safeguards in to the pills to prevent addicts from crushing them open and taking all their contents at once.
But that, he said, has lead to an increased abuse of oxycodone, also known as Roxicodone or just Roxys, as well as another drug.
"That (plan) backfired, I think, a bit. The intention was less OxyContin, but it's actually lead to more heroin use," he said. "I haven't heard of anybody abusing OxyContin for a while now. It's all oxycodone."
According to the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health's annual report for 2012, an average of 23 Utahns die each month from prescription opioid abuse. Since 2000, the number of deaths due to overdose of pain medication has risen more than 400 percent.
"Equally concerning, the abuse of prescription painkillers among teens now ranks second — only behind marijuana — as the nation’s most prevalent illegal drug problem. One in 10 12th-graders reported having misused a prescription pain medication," according to the report.
Crookston said he sees the same thing in his office.
"Younger people think, 'Well, my mother takes it so it must be safe,' and it's not. We have an epidemic of prescription opiate abuse in the U.S. that's killing people. More people die of prescription pain pill overdoses than die on the highways, and that's been true in Utah for several years now," he said.
The number of people admitted for substance abuse in public treatment facilities increased in Utah by more than 700 from 2011 to 2012, according to the report. While alcohol was the most abused drug and methamphetamine second, "if you combine the illicit opioids (heroin) and the prescription opioids (methadone, oxycodone, hydrocodone), this category would surpass methamphetamine," the report stated.
Opiates became the second most used drug after alcohol among 25- to 34-year-olds, according to the report, and is the third drug of choice for people 35 to 64 years old.
More than 72 percent of adults in substance abuse treatment statewide had a high school diploma, and 23 percent had some type of college training, the report found.
"Women tend be admitted to treatment more frequently than men for prescription drugs," the report found.
"(Oxycodone) is a very addicting drug. Its widely prescriped for pain, and some people become addicted," Crookstone said. "It's a good pain medication for the right person. But some people do become addicted to it and lose control."
Prescription pain meds are easily bought and sold on the street, he said. Some people will sell their extra pills they may have originally received for a legitimate reason. Some people will still try to "doctor shop." And some will just steal the oxydodone, he said.
"I heard in some high schools, it's easier to get pills than marijuana because it's easier to conceal," Crookston said. "It's just pervasive, it's widespread, and it effects all age groups, even teenagers. It takes over a person's life. They lose control, and it robs them of everything. They lose their jobs, their families, eventually. It doesn't start out that way. People start out just wanting to feel good."
Peter Reilly, 21, came to Utah from Arizona to seek substance abuse treatment. He said he started taking prescription meds when he was 14. But recreational use eventually became an everyday event. And when that high wasn't enough, he turned to heroin.
"Your body gets used to it. And then eventually, you don't have it, you get sick," Reilly said. "You know the one thing that will make that go away is the drug. That's why it leads people to do crazy things to get it."
Reilly said he never dreamed that one day he'd be a heroin user.
"That drug took everything away from me. You start stealing to get what you want. You start lying. You lose trust from your friends and family," he said.
And it all started because of an addiction to prescription meds.
"Just because it's a pill doesn't mean it's all right. It will take everything away from you if it gets to that point," Reilly said.
Part of the problem with prescription drug addiction and raising awareness is that some don't think of it as being as serious of a drug problem as cocaine and heroin, Hanson said. Not only are prescription medications legal, they're not as "dirty" as sticking a needle into an arm, he said, which is one of the reasons people become addicted.
"If you've gotten into trouble, there was probably legitimate reasons you started using it, and you probably let it get out of hand," Crookston said. "It's a victim mindset for prescription drug abuse. Whereas, if you're abusing these other drugs, we think, 'Oh, you went out and looked for trouble, and you got it.' We're not nearly as kind and less judgmental with those people."
April 27 is National Take-Back Day, a nationwide effort for people to dispose of any unused or expired medications. The effort is backed in part by the DEA. Information on where to drop off pills can be found at www.useonlyasdirected.org.
Contributing: Mike Anderson