Prescriptions top the streets in local drug deaths

LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) — A 20-year survey released this month by the Tippecanoe County Coroner’s Office gives a clear picture of most dangerous drugs on local streets. Street drugs like heroin and cocaine — long thought to be more harmful than prescription painkillers — are now the second biggest threat to users.

Taking over are powerful prescription painkillers such as Methadone, Suboxone and Morphine. From 2003 to 2013, more people died from a fatal overdose of Methadone than cocaine and heroin combined.

As News 18 reported in the first part of our series on prescription painkillers, users are often introduced to these drugs legally and legitimately through a doctor. From there, a spiraling pattern of addiction can occur, leaving users dependent on the medication for years.

“When I was cut off from them, I wasn’t taking them properly,” said Matt Cook, a recovering narcotics addict. “[I was] overtaking and my body was physically dependent at that time.”

Cook’s path, like so many other addicts, started with a legitimate prescription of Oxycontin. Once users are cut off, they often turn to the streets, where heroin can help with crippling withdrawal symptoms. Whether someone is addicted to a street drug like heroin or a prescription medication like Oxycontin, quitting can be very difficult.

“People feel like they’re going to die when they come off of that,” said Dr. Marc Estes, medical director of IU Health Arnett’s emergency department. “They won’t, of note. You can’t die from it, but they feel that way.”

Because the symptoms feel so severe, addicts are often prescribed Methadone or Suboxone — two outpatient treatments that have worked for many, but failed some. Cook would pick up his Methadone from a clinic once a week in Lafayette. He would take a dose to get him through the day, then take bottles home to use the rest of that week. All of this was legal and under a doctor’s order.

Those bottles were supposed to last Cook through the week, and ideally, his doses would be reduced until his dependency was gone.

“That was supposed to last through the week, but it didn’t for me,” he said. “It would last, on average, three or four days…because I’d take it [all].”

Cook was addicted to Methadone for four years. He said he’s lucky to be alive. In the coroner’s survey, 16 people died from overdosing only on Methadone. There were more than two dozen others who had mixed a deadly Methadone cocktail, including other drugs Oxycodone and cocaine.

The Methadone treatment problem is monitored very closely, according to Dr. Estes. Among other requirements, participants have to take regular drug tests to make sure they aren’t returning to the very drugs they are trying to purge from their bodies. But not everyone is satisfied with the way Methadone is administered.

“I don’t think Methadone or Suboxone are a good alternative to heroin,” said Amy Schaller-Page, executive director of Lafayette’s Home with Hope halfway house.

Schaller-Page has helped more than 1,400 people deal with all types of addiction. She said in the seven and a half years she has worked there, Methadone has helped “maybe one or two people.”

Several doctors in Indiana are accused of peddling Suboxone for cash, after the DEA raided offices statewide last week, including one used by Dr. Luella Bangura, who lives in Lafayette. Suboxone, Methadone and other prescription drugs are becoming a bigger concern to local police, according to Lt. Brad Bishop of the Tippecanoe County Drug Task Force.

“If you still have to detox off of the Methadone and the Suboxone, then I think there’s still an issue,” said Schaller-Page. She prefers recovering addicts go through intense and comprehensive rehab, instead of the “quick fix” approach of adding less powerful painkillers.

So far rehabilitation at Home with Hope has worked for Cook, 34, who is going on his second month clean.

“For me, as an addict, I need to be held accountable,” he said. “This program helps me in that way, and there’s always people around that I can talk to.”

It’s that effort and promise Schaller-Page seeks from participants. Seeing the transformation in former addicts is the reason she does her job.

“Many of them will tell us thank you for saving their life,” she said. “It’s teaching them a new way to live.”

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