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Maine Officials Seek Solutions to Rampant Prescription Drug Abuse
10/25/2011   Reported By: Jay Field

Maine needs a stronger, better-coordinted statewide plan to fight prescription drug abuse. That's the reality that drew more than a hundred people to a daylong summit in Northport today. The gathering---put on by the Maine Attorney General's Office---gave law enforcement officials, social workers, physicians, researchers and clergy the chance to brainstorm ways to improve drug enforcement, prevention, treatment and education.

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Maine Officials Seek Solutions to Rampant Prescrip
Originally Aired: 10/25/2011 5:30 PM

It's not like prescription drugs suddenly became this big problem. The state has been struggling with elevated rates of abuse for a decade. Still, it can be powerful to get a reminder of just how serious a social challenge it continues to be, especially when it comes from the person in Maine who has to figure out what cocktail of substances caused some users to pay the ultimate price for their drug abuse.

"I came to Maine in 1997 and I thought I'd come to some kind of paradise at that point," says Dr. Peggy Greenwald, the state's chief medical examiner.

There were 34 drug-related deaths in Maine that year, when Dr. Greenwald moved to up from Massachusetts. Greenwald had held the same job in the Commonwealth and in the counties of San Francisco and San Diego in California before that, "where there was huge epidemics of cocaine and methampthetamine. And it kind of looked like the drug problem had passed us by. But unfortunately, over the next couple of years, I started to see a disturbing trend of drug-related deaths, especially prescription drugs."

Ten years ago, there were 74 deaths in Maine from use of so-called pharmaceutical drugs. A year later, in 2002, there were 149 fatalities. In 2009 and 2010, as deaths from illicit drugs like cocaine plunged to their lowest level in a decade, prescription drug-related fatalities rose to just over 160 deaths per year.

There are now more prescription drug deaths in Maine than there are fatalities on the highways. U.S. District Judge John A. Woodcock says as abuse has gotten worse, so has drug-related crimes---from reselling large quatities of prescription medicine on the street to guns for drugs trading schemes across the boarder with Canada. "My sense is that it is chemistry that got us to where we are today. And it will be chemistry that will lead us out," Woodcock says.

In literal terms, Woodcock is referring to the ongoing neurobiological research he hopes will result in the introduction of abuse-resistent pain medications. Figuratively, though, he could just as easily have been referring to the breakout sessions, where conference particpants would soon begin kicking around ideas to overhaul Maine's approach to the problem. The meetings covered four areas: drug enforcement, prevention, treatment and education.

"Occasionally, they'll be a rougue physician. In my business, there are rogue clergy," says Reverend Bob Carlson, who runs Penobscot Community Heath Care. Carlson says most doctors are ethical and mean well. But some received medical training at a time when prescription drug abuse wasn't on the map as a serious issue. "One of the things we can do is educate practioners on how to prescribe, what to prescribe and how to watch a patient who might be getting into trouble."

But doctors aren't the only ones who need more education on the risks. Marcella Sorg runs the Rural Drug and Alcohol Research program at the University of Maine. She says the state must do a much better job educating patients about the risks posed by opiates.

And Sorg says there needs to be more extensive cooperation and information sharing between public health officials and law enforcement. "Information that law enforcement has need to go back to clinicians, just as much as information that clincians have about diversion needs to come to law enforcement."

That kind of information sharing, of course, raises complicated patient privacy concerns that would have to be worked through. They're the same kinds of issues that would come up if police were able to get a key tool to help them in their fight to control the flow of prescription drugs on the street: access to the Prescription Monitoring Program or PMP. Under the program, pharmacists enter patient information into a database, when they prescribe medication for pain. Doctors can then check those records, prior to filling a prescription.

Michael Wardrop, the top U.S. drug enforcement officer in Maine, says access to the PMP would help authorities answer critical questions. "Are there people who are doctor shopping? Is there a patient who has gone to five physicians over a period of two days and got 10 scripts of Oxycodone? They obviously don't need 10 scripts of Oxycodone. They have potentially major addiction or are illegally distributing it in their communities."

Right now, 50 percent of pharmacists in Maine enter information into the PMP. But law enforcement isn't allowed to access the database. It's just one policy the state officials may need to take a second look at, if they hope to finally cut down on prescription drug abuse and deaths in Maine.


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