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Prescription Drug Abuse Declines - But What About Maine?
09/26/2012   Reported By: Jay Field

Pain pill abuse is going down across the country, according to new national data. A 14 percent drop in prescription drug use among young adults between 2010 and 2011 is fueling the overall national decline in pain pill abuse, according to the federal government's yearly National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Jay Field reports on whether the national picture squares with what public health officials are seeing here in Maine.

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The Obama administration has labeled pain pill abuse the fastest-growing drug problem in America. That assesment isn't likely to change anytime soon. But public health officials say the drop in prescription drug abuse - to its lowest level since 2002 - is a significant milestone.

Peter Delaney runs the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in Washington.

"What I think is impacting on this is the fact that we're seeing reduced prescription drug use among 12 to 17 year olds over the past seven years, and they've now aged into this 18- to 25-year-old group."

Prescription drug use among 18 to 25 year olds dropped 14 percent in a year, according to the annual National Survery on Drug Use and Health. Overall, roughly six million people abused pain pills and other prescription drugs last year, compared to around seven million in 2010.

In recent years, states across the nation, including Maine, have been working to educate more physicians about how their prescribing habits could be unintentionally fueling prescription drug diversion and abuse.

Medication disposal and takeback events are now common in many states. Drug enforcement agencies have dedicated more and more resources to cracking down on doctor shopping and other fraudulent activity that moves legally-prescribed pills onto the illegal market.

Delaney says all of these efforts are paying off. But he's quick to add words of caution.

"Even if we're seeing a drop in the 18- to 25-year-old group, I think that's not enough to say, 'We've won,' and go home," he says. What we're saying is, 'We're probably having some improvement in the situation because of what we're doing. We should keep working on it.'"

In Maine, there's some evidence that similar dynamics could be at work. A state report on substance abuse trends in Maine, released last spring, shows a slight decline in prescription drug abuse amoung high schooles from 2009 to 2012. The rate of abuse among the 18 to 25 year olds, though, has remained stable, hovering around 14 percent for the past eight years.

Neill Miner runs the Southern Kennebec Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention. He says the problem in Maine is complicated by the fact that there are simply more drugs available here, relative to the overall population size, than there are in other states.

"There's been a very large number of prescriptions issued for opiates and other abusable drugs - more here in Maine than in other places," Miner says.

Research from the University of New England, for example, shows that between 2006 and 2010, the number of oxycodone prescriptions written in Maine went up by 50 percent.

The national research, while promising, also contains one very worriesome trend: an increase in heroin use. It's a problem that substance abuse treatment providers in Maine fear will only get worse if it becomes increasingly difficult to get prescription opiates here on the illegal market.


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