Lawmakers and law enforcement officers around the nation have made considerable strides in combating the nation’s prescription drug epidemic, but prescription medication abuse is still a huge problem in Utah. Poisoning is the leading cause of accidental death in the state; prescription drug overdoses are the most common cause of poisoning. Every month in Utah, 23 people die as a result of prescription drug overdoses.
Heroin addiction rates are steadily rising in the state as well — and have been for years. Prescription opiate abuse opens the door to heroin addiction for many addicts, who find in the street drug a cheaper, easier-to-obtain alternative to OxyContin, Vicodin and other commonly abused prescription painkillers. State lawmakers are taking steps to protect addicts from death by overdose. There is hope health care reform will make treatment more accessible to many addicted Utah residents.
The Predominance of Prescription Drug Overdoses
Utah ranks eighth in the country for prescription drug overdose deaths. Seventy-one percent of prescription opiate overdose deaths in Utah are linked to a substance abuse disorder (as opposed to a physical or mental illness, an intimate partner problem or alcohol abuse.)
Nationwide, prescription drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed in the past decade; that’s no secret. Lawmakers have implemented prescription drug monitoring programs to keep track of who is issuing, and who is using, drug prescriptions. The law now holds providers accountable, eliminating “doctor shopping” and “pill mills” that make it all too easy for addicts to access prescription painkillers.
Taking prescription painkillers off the streets isn’t enough to eliminate opiate addiction. These drugs stimulate the opioid receptors in the brain in a manner similar to heroin, morphine, methadone and other opiate drugs. When a prescription painkiller addict can’t find pills, he or she is just as likely to turn to heroin, which is now cheaper and easier to get.
How Are We Fighting Opiate Addiction in Utah?
While removing all forms of opiate drugs from the streets could theoretically solve the problem of addiction, that’s easier said than done. For every kilo of heroin law enforcement officers take off the streets, more heroin will pour over the border from Central and South America. Improving access to treatment, and taking steps to prevent overdose deaths, are more practical solutions.
Many Utahans can’t afford treatment, but Salt Lake City mayor Ralph Becker is among those who hope that the Affordable Care Act will expand access to treatment. “The ability of our state now to step forward with the Affordable Care Act resources can and will make a huge difference in our ability to address these issues,” he told Fox 13 News.
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-District 37, has sponsored a Good Samaritan bill that would protect people who report an opiate overdose from prosecution on some drug charges. It is currently awaiting the governor’s signature. A second bill would make it easier for friends, loved ones and police officers to obtain naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of heroin overdose.
While the opiate drug epidemic continues throughout the nation, Utah remains among the states hit the hardest. Lawmakers have responded with Good Samaritan legislation and could soon take steps to improve access to treatment. It remains to be seen, though, whether these measures will be enough to help Utahans gripped by opiate addiction.