By Melissa Powell

For cops, doctors and social workers, prescription drug abuse is tough to fight because they usually don’t know where to look. Instead, they come across addicts by accident.

Police officers often find illegal prescription drugs on people during searches for marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine or substances that traditionally lead to criminal charges.

“They just find a bag of pills in the guy’s pocket when they’re searching him after an arrest for something else,” said Walt Obenschain, deputy chief probation and parole for the Virginia Probation and Parole  District 12 office in Staunton.

He said prescription drug abuse always has been, and most likely will continue to be, a “hidden issue.”

Through outreach, education and law enforcement efforts, community members are responding to this growing problem – but first they have to find it.

Obenschain said police officers tend to rely on informants.

“[Informants] are doing it for consideration for criminal charges or for money or just to be doing it,” said Donald Schley, a member of a drug task force with jurisdiction in Rockbridge County, Lexington and Buena Vista in west-central Viginia.

“They’ll arrange the deals themselves,” he said. “They’ll contact us, and basically give us the details of what they’re purchasing, how much, who’s it off of, where’s it going to take place.”

Pressures and prescriptions

Rebecca Textor, prevention services program manager for Rockbridge Area Community Services, used to work at Carilion Stonewall Jackson Hospital. When she started to hear about kids who were abusing prescription drugs, she said she wanted to do something about it and joined the nonprofit outreach and resource organization.

“It’s not just the kids that are the big party types that are abusing prescription drugs,” she said. “It’s also the kids that are doing really well in school and are wanting to stay up and finish the assignment and are feeling a lot of pressure to have that perfect app (application) for college, and are abusing things like Adderall.”

Teenagers also tend to self medicate, Textor said, because they’re dealing with the stresses of adolescence. She said they get medication from their parents’ medicine cabinets or from friends who have prescriptions from doctors.

Lexington police Capt. A.M. “Bucky” Miller said he believes parents—more than high school students—need to be educated about the dangers posed by the prescription drugs in their medicine cabinets.

“The police department is willing to go in and give any talks or anything that is needed. We can get the high schoolers, but we really need to get their parents,” he said. “We really need to get the people who are getting the prescriptions and keeping up with the prescriptions.”

RACS recently began adding programs aimed at parents and other adults. In November, RACS held a Drug Take Back to encourage residents to clean out their medicine cabinets and get rid of old prescriptions.

Police and RACS representatives spent four hours in the Wal-Mart parking lot, where they collected 107 pounds of drugs from 39 people who dropped off bottles.

Families who don’t want to dispose of their prescription drugs can get LockMed lock boxes from RACS, Textor said.

“People who are on medications for any number of mental illnesses or ailments can have their drugs stored safely at home,” she said.

Next year, RACS will distribute lock boxes to the parent-teacher associations at Parry McCluer High School and Rockbridge County High School. That way, Textor said, parents who are concerned about their children’s having access to prescription drugs in the house can request a free lock box.

More follow-up needed

Tim Carden, the agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Roanoke, said that one major component of prevention efforts is educating doctors who over-prescribe.

The American Medical Association is working on education programs to remind doctors that prescribing medication is not always the right move, Carden said.

John Savides, a substance abuse counselor at Augusta Medical Center, said he believes doctors don’t appreciate how easily a patient can become addicted to a prescription drug.

“So I think for physicians it begins with more education in medical school about addiction of all kinds, whether it’s alcohol, street drug or prescription and how to avoid that,” he said.

But doctors can’t be blamed for patients’ actions once they leave the examination room, Miller said.

“Doctors really can’t keep up with that because they trust you to take your pills, go home and do what you’re supposed to,” he said. “And if you have a good doctor, and you come back and you say ‘Hey, my pain is still there, I need some more medicine,’ most of them will give you more, whether you have used it or not. Rarely do I think they ask you if all of your medicine is gone.”

That’s another reason Miller said he thinks parents should be more informed.

“Parents really need to make sure that if their child is on Ritalin, that child takes that pill,” he said. “And that you just don’t say, ‘Go take your pill,’ because we really need to make sure that they take their medicine. That way we know where that Ritalin is going.”