By Eleanor Kennedy

The biggest drug problem in America isn’t meth, heroin, cocaine or some other mysterious substance sold on a street corner. It’s prescription drugs, says Tim Carden, agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Roanoke.

“In general, prescription drug abuse and the diversion of prescription drugs has become the number one priority and the number one problem in the U.S.,” Carden said.

The problem has gotten so bad, he said, that the Centers for Disease Control has labeled the misuse of prescription drugs an “epidemic.”

About 12 million Americans over the age of 12 used painkillers without prescriptions in 2010, the CDC reported.

Misuse of prescription drugs is a problem in west-central Virginia’s Rockbridge County, narcotics investigators say, because pharmaceuticals are so easy to access. According to the DEA, Americans consume 40 percent of the prescription drugs in the world despite only making up 4 to 5 percent of the population. About four billion prescriptions are written each year in the U.S.

“It’s kind of frustrating,” said Donald Schley, an investigator for the local drug task force. “It seems like there’s an unlimited supply.”

Rebecca Textor, who manages prevention programming for a nonprofit community outreach and resource group, Rockbridge Area Community Services, said there is a perception that pharmaceuticals are safe because a doctor prescribed the drug for someone, even if it’s not the user.

“You have all these people on this side that you wouldn’t expect or maybe don’t use other drugs who are experimenting with prescription drug use,” Textor said. “And I think some of the reasoning behind it is, ‘Well, it’s a pharmaceutical, it’s not going to hurt me.’ ”

But when used improperly or without a prescription, experts say, pharmaceuticals can be addictive, dangerous and, in some cases, deadly.


In the Rockbridge area, most misused prescription drugs are found in the medicine cabinets of friends, parents and grandparents, Textor said.

Source: Centers for Disease Control

“It’s just considered a social norm here … things are kept in cabinets for years,” she said. “Whether you’ve had surgery two years ago and you have Oxycontin left over, it sits there in case you need it someday or in case a friend needs it.”

But using a friend’s prescriptions can be dangerous because drugs are prescribed based on body chemistry, symptoms and other factors, Textor said.

Leaving drugs in medicine cabinets means children have access to them. And there are more and more reports to authorities of young people grabbing whatever they can from their parents’ medicine cabinets and sharing the drugs with their friends.

“They have ‘skittling’ parties where they have a bowl, and you walk into the party and you have a drug with you … And you dump it in the bowl … and it gets mixed up and you take whatever,” Textor said. “It’s kind of like a roulette, a Russian roulette of prescription drug abuse.”

Rockbridge County High School Principal Scott Jefferies said he hasn’t seen any problems with area high school students and prescription drugs. But Textor said her organization is hearing “through the grapevine, through parents, through law enforcement” about these problems in Rockbridge County.

And Lexington police Capt. A.M. “Bucky” Miller said prescription abuse is a problem that is only going to grow.

“I think it’s going to be the next big epidemic,” he said.


Not everyone who’s addicted to prescription drugs took them from the medicine cabinet of a parent or a friend. Some people had legal prescriptions, said Walt Obsenschain, a probation and parole officer in Staunton who deals with addicts who abuse drugs of all kinds.

“Again, you’re getting something legally through a prescription and it’s just all this undercurrent,” he said. “It’s just really hard to know when people are abusing it.”

For lifelong Buena Vista resident Jason Wheeler, legally prescribed prescription drugs led to illicit ones. Wheeler was diagnosed with bipolar disorder three years ago and prescribed Xanax. When the medication didn’t make him better, he said, his doctor simply prescribed him more.

“It hurt me more than anything because I took them religiously. If I didn’t have one … I felt fidgety and I thought, ‘I’m not helping myself,’” Wheeler said. “I was more addicted to Xanax more than anything else I’ve ever taken.”

Source: Centers for Disease Control

He said he took “uppers,” such as cocaine and methamphetamines, to combat the “zombied out” feeling he got from his prescription.

“I know it sounds like a cop out, but it wasn’t for what everybody else was using it for,” Wheeler said. “I was using it to stay awake. You can’t drink but so many energy drinks in a day.”

Wheeler is in Rockbridge Regional Jail, serving two years for distribution of methamphetamine and driving under the influence of drugs. At the time of his arrest, he was taking Xanax for his bipolar disorder and codeine for back pain from a college baseball injury. There was also marijuana in his system, Wheeler said.

“I self-medicated more after I got on the medication that I thought would get me off of drugs until I finally got the DUID. I could have killed somebody,” he said. “I could have killed myself.”

‘Drug shopping’

Investigators said local drug task forces have a tough time second-guessing doctors who write prescriptions for drugs to address their patients’ problems.

“It would be very hard to investigate because we’re not doctors and we just don’t know who knows what,” said narcotics investigator Ernest “Junior” Southers.

But that’s an issue the DEA can, and does, combat.

“Quite frankly, doctors are being investigated and doctors are going to jail,” Carden said.

Colleen Arnold, an emergency room doctor at Carilion Stonewall Jackson Hospital in Lexington, said many doctors don’t have the time to distinguish a real medical need for a drug from an addiction.

“I think what lets that happen is that sometimes physicians or clinics are just so busy that they don’t have time to really sit down and talk to a patient about whether they’re abusing drugs,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just more expedient to give someone a prescription and let them go.”

Many addicts go from hospital to hospital “drug-shopping,” narcotics investigators said.

To help fight that problem, Virginia has created a prescription drug monitoring system, linking pharmacies and doctors’ offices throughout the state.

Arnold said the computer system is helping busy doctors stop addicts.

“If I have someone who says, ‘Oh yeah I got a kidney stone,’ and they look fine and I’m pretty sure they’re drug-seeking, I can go onto the state’s website and look up their name,” she said.

Carden said the DEA is not anti-prescription drugs. “In the right hands, prescribed to the right people, utilized by the right people, they have great benefits,” he said.

But when they’re misused, he said, “it’s both a medical problem and it’s a legal problem.”

Melissa Powell, Caitlin Doermer and Robert Grattan also contributed to this story.