Madison and St. Clair County residents are buying opioid prescriptions at a rate that soars above the national average, according to new data from federal agencies.
In 2014, there were 14,367,940 oxycodone and hydrocodone pills sold in Madison County, and 9,031,240 sold in St. Clair County. That’s the most recent year that statistics were available from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration diversion program, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
That’s approximately 34 pills per St. Clair County resident, and 54 pills per Madison County resident.
By comparison, the statewide average per Illinois county is 153,841 pills a year, and the national average is 182,742 pills. That translates to 1.22 pills per Illinois resident or 1.73 pills per U.S. resident — a fraction of the ratio in Madison and St. Clair County.
“We’ve had many discussions about these extraordinary numbers,” said Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons. “It puts a highlighter on why we have such a huge problem... (It’s) the huge flood that we’re trying to fight against that we have no control over.”
And these are only the prescriptions legally sold to pharmacies in the metro-east. The work of the Madison County Heroin Task Force and statements by numerous addiction experts reinforce the link between opioid prescription abuse and heroin addiction: When a person becomes addicted to opioid prescriptions, they first turn to illegal sources of opioids, and when that becomes too expensive, they turn to heroin. The new heroin is only $10 a pill and does not have to be injected.
“Heroin is an epidemic that often has its beginnings in the abuse of prescription opioids,” said St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly. “We have to acknowledge there is a potential for danger in almost every household in our community, regardless of income, regardless of status, regardless of what neighborhood you live in, and we have to confront it.”
Approximately 75 percent of heroin users started on prescription drugs, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
“These numbers are shocking and go a long way to explaining why we have so many people addicted to these powerful opiates and so many overdose deaths,” Gibbons said.
Gibbons said an addict’s mother once told him that she had taken her son to the emergency room for a small boil on his foot, and they treated it — but they sent him home with an opiate prescription for a minor injury.
“Anecdotally, we hear consistently that people go to the emergency room or the doctor, and if they’re registering any measure of pain, they’re being given opiate-based painkillers,” Gibbons said. “There’s a lot of discussion going on about it in the medical community, there’s legislation being proposed federally… It seems like, from our experience, that the go-to prescription for pain is opiates. I don’t know what other choices they have, but it would be helpful to have some.”
Major reasons addicts begin using substances include self-medication, sometimes for pain, sometimes for mental health conditions, according to various speakers before the heroin task force. Most are legitimate prescriptions offered by doctors for medical purposes, but then sometimes are “shared” for free by family and friends.
John Maszinski of the Illinois State Medical Society said the organization was in full support of last year’s Heroin Crisis Act, which became law on Sept. 11. Among other provisions, it widened access to naloxone, an anti-overdose medication that can counteract the effects of opioid overdoses; required that law enforcement officers carry naloxone; provided assistance for prescription dropoff boxes; and mandated a public education program about the dangers of opiate prescriptions and unwanted prescription access.
Gibbons said according to the statistics his office has compiled, only about nine pills out of every 30 prescribed are used for legitimate medical purposes. The other 21 pills end up being sold, diverted or are otherwise feeding addictions, he said.
Illinois has a prescription monitoring program, which is a voluntary program to catalog narcotic prescriptions and warn doctors if a patient appears to be drug-seeking — and to warn others when doctors are over-prescribing. In one case, a single patient had used 63 medical providers to write prescriptions and filled them at 58 different dispensaries.
From 1999 to 2010, opioid prescriptions quadrupled across the country, according to the prescription monitoring program. While fewer than 10 percent of Illinois’ population lives south of Interstate 70, that area comprised 25 percent of Schedule II narcotic prescriptions as of last year.
Kelly said he believes the illicit drug community is taking advantage of this situation. “The cartels pumping heroin into our community are riding the wave of prescription drug abuse because they know the chemistry is the same and they know opioid addicts eventually run out of ways to get prescriptions, and eventually turn to cheaper heroin,” Kelly said.
One way that these drugs get into the wrong hands is from unwanted prescriptions stolen, given away or otherwise discarded. Officials in Madison and St. Clair counties are planning another prescription take-back day this weekend, where residents can drop off unwanted prescriptions for legal, safe disposal.
Kelly’s office and the DEA will collect pills in the circle in front of the St. Clair County Courthouse at 10 Public Square in Belleville. Other drop-off sites in St. Clair County will be operated at police departments in New Athens, O’Fallon, Fairview Heights and Freeburg, as well as the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department, St. Clair Square mall, and the Schnucks and Walgreens stores on Illinois Street in Swansea.
There are also drop-off sites being operated Saturday at police departments in Highland, Edwardsville, Maryville, East Alton and Alton, as well as the Edwardsville Shop-Save and the Madison County Sheriff’s Department.
In all cases, the service is free and anonymous, no questions asked.
Last September, 350 tons of prescriptions drugs were collected at more than 5,000 sites operated by the DEA and 3,800 of its state and local law enforcement partners, according to the DEA. In the 10 previous take-back events, more than 2,750 tons of pills were collected nationwide.
At a glance
Here’s the information you need to know for the prescription collection events.
- 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, April 30
- Locations: Belleville, New Athens, O’Fallon, Fairview Heights, Freeburg, St. Clair Square, Swansea, Highland, Edwardsville, Maryville, East Alton and Alton.
- There are also permanent collection boxes at: police departments in Alton, Bethalto, Collinsville, East Alton, Edwardsville, Glen Carbon, Granite City, Highland, Madison, Maryville, Roxana, Troy, Wood River, the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Police Department and Madison County Sheriff’s Department, among others.
- Any medication in almost any form is accepted, including over-the-counter medications, vitamins, antibiotics and ointments. Items that cannot be accepted include oxygen tanks, asthma inhalers, mercury thermometers, hearing aids, ordinary household waste and sharps or needles.
- Collection sites can be searched on the U.S. DEA Drug Diversion website.