This is a supersized column about drug addiction. It’s a fascinating but depressing topic, and it will not appeal to everyone. But it’s a good look, from a different angle, at one of our biggest problems.
Last year, as part of a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, federal records of distribution of the medication between 2006 and 2012 became public. It turned out that businesses in Pike County sold nearly 17 million doses of opioids during those seven years. That’s a gigantic amount.
No matter how many pain patients needed this medicine for good reasons, it should be obvious that a large number of these pills wound up in the hands of addicts. That got me to wondering how this could happen, and I found out when a woman who’s used opioids and many other drugs for nearly 20 years told her story.
Now in her 40s, she fractured her skull in 2001 and spent two months in a Jackson hospital. Like many addicts, her first exposure to opioids was for a legitimate medical treatment.
“When I was in the hospital, they started giving me Tylox, which is a very mild narcotic, an opiate,” she said. “They said, ‘Your body can’t heal if you feel pain,’ and they were giving me opiates every four hours.”
Once out of the hospital, a neurologist prescribed Lortab, which is a combination of acetaminophen and the opioid hydrocodone. She said she took that medicine for six months, after which the doctor said she didn’t need it any more and took her off it.
“I can remember the first day without opioids,” she said. “I have never felt so bad. I knew something was wrong and I said I never want to go another day like this.”
Shortly afterward she started “doctor shopping” to keep getting opioid prescriptions. At two pain management clinics in New Orleans, she also obtained Benzodiazepine, which is similar to Valium and Xanax; and Methadone, an opioid designed to get people off stronger drugs.
She credits Suboxone, another opioid used to treat addiction, with saving her life. She started taking that drug in 2005 and became addicted to it as well. It took more than a decade, including a couple of years using meth, before she summoned the strength to try seriously to get off drugs.
She finally landed in Pike County Drug Court in 2018 after avoiding it at least one time before that. She has been sanctioned by the court several times since then for breaking its rules, but this week said she’s been sober for eight months. She has a job and is working to pay off about $4,000 in court fines, a task that drug court requires.
“I’ve never been this sober since I was 21,” she remarked. She honestly doesn’t know if she’ll be able to stay away from drugs, but she is relying on God and the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Hopefully her story will have a happy ending. The bigger picture is more challenging.
In her opinion the local drug problem has not improved one bit over the past two decades.
As a longtime user, she has an insight into this topic that is different from judges, narcotics officers, drug court workers and rehab therapists. More of us need to hear it from people like her.
She believes that most opioid addiction cases start the way hers did, with a prescription for a legitimate pain issue. And she said most addicts want to quit taking the drugs but can’t get by without them.
Once she realized she needed opioids, she did not have to look very hard for them.
“At first, I had a friend that was buying them off the street,” she said. “Actually, she was buying them from her aunt, who was getting Oxycontin from a doctor. The aunt was selling them to her niece and me and lots of other people.
“Through that you meet lots of other people from the streets. You just do. There were lots of people going to the aunt’s house to buy the meds. She lives in Kentwood, and that’s how I think I met different connections. I was going to Amite at one point, buying from a guy I met there.”
The crackdown on doctor shopping and the creation of a national database to track doctors, patients and prescriptions has made it more difficult to get opioids without a prescription. She said those pills now cost more on the street than meth or cocaine.
“If you are on opioids, you can’t function without them, so people are willing to pay everything, because that’s how you’re breathing, really,” she said. To feed her habit, she sold a lot of her own things, and especially regrets selling some family heirlooms.
Told about the 2006-12 federal opioid records, she said the 17 million doses distributed in Southwest Mississippi was not a surprise, and started rattling off the pharmacies that offer lower prices for Suboxone or that will let patients refill opioid prescriptions a few days before they were supposed to. Early refills are the small-town, good-neighbor customer services of which addicts take great advantage.
Opioids are not the only drugs that are widely used. She said meth use is heavy despite a change in the law that requires a prescription for any medicine with pseudo-ephedrine, a key meth ingredient. New methods of producing meth have taken a lot of the explosive risk out of it, she added.
“Meth is more rampant than ever before, and you’d be surprised at the people that are doing meth in 2020,” she said. “More people are on meth than anything else, but opioids are giving it a close run.”
She said that in 2015-16, she used meth every day. “I never had to go far for it,” she added.
I don’t have answers to the drug problem. I am lucky to have avoided addiction to risky products like drugs, cigarettes and alcohol. If I am hooked on anything, it’s the caffeine in Mountain Dew, and I can live with that.
I suspect that a lot of people reading this are thinking, “She made the decision to use drugs and she should have just quit. It’s her own fault.”
Can’t argue with that. We all make decisions and we live with the benefits or consequences.
But it’s hard to lay the full blame on the addicts. Their brains and nervous systems have been altered, probably permanently. Expecting a drug addict to quit on their own is like telling someone with a mental illness to quit being so depressed or so hostile. It’s not that easy.
Besides, these addicts got lots of professional encouragement. I appreciate that companies are in business to make money. But it disgusts me that these drug executives pulled their little Jedi mind trick and whispered, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,” when they told Congress in the 1990s that their new opioids were not addictive.
Two decades of evidence says otherwise. Opioids are heroin’s first cousin, so addiction should not come as a big shock. The tragedy is that a lot of people died from these drugs and many, many more, like the woman who talked to me, have had their lives damaged or ruined.
Circuit Judge Mike Taylor, who runs drug court, provided a link to a Centers for Disease Control website that said nationwide opioid prescriptions have declined by 25% from 2012 to 2017, the most recent year available.
In Pike County in 2012, there were 178 prescriptions dispensed for every 100 residents. By 2017, the number of prescriptions had decreased to 130, down 27%.
This is still a lot of opioids, even when you consider that some of the prescriptions were for people living outside Pike County.
The CDC did not report the actual number of pills distributed the way the 2006-12 records did. But in 2017 Pike County had the ninth-highest prescription rate of Mississippi’s 82 counties. Are we seriously in that much pain?
I have a bunch of other questions: What does law enforcement say about these observations of meth and opioid use? Is it true that meth is more popular than ever? What’s the deal with Suboxone?
I suspect more drug-related columns lie ahead. Bear with me. It’s an unpleasant subject but it’s all around us. We can’t just stick our heads in the ground and pretend otherwise.