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Summit to highlight prescription drug abuse

Steve Garrison
stgarrison@daily-times.com
Oxycontin pills are arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt., on Feb. 19, 2013.

FARMINGTON – The New Mexico Osteopathic Medical Association will host a summit on prescription drug abuse Saturday at San Juan College.

Prosecutors, law enforcement and medical professionals will discuss ways to address prescription pill abuse, which has become a national issue in recent years due to the prevalent use of addictive opiate pain medications, such as oxycontin and vicodin.

The drug overdose death rate doubled between 2000 and 2014, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with 47,055 overdose deaths reported in the United States in 2014.

New Mexico had the second-highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the country, second only to West Virginia, the CDC states, and 61 percent of those deaths resulted from an opiate, including heroin.

On Wednesday, the CDC urged doctors to avoid prescribing opiate painkillers for patients with chronic pain, stating that a fourfold increase in opioid prescriptions since 1999 has contributed to the current epidemic.

"It's rampant," said San Juan County Sheriff's Office detective Lt. Kyle Lincoln, who will appear on the law enforcement panel at Saturday's drug summit. "Prescription drug abuse is rampant."

Sgt. Kevin Burns of the Region II Narcotics Taskforce will also appear on the panel. He said Thursday about 6 to 10 percent of his agency's drug cases involve prescription medications.

Burns said methamphetamine remains the most popular illegal drug in San Juan County, but opiates are much more dangerous due to their depressive effects on the central nervous system, which can cause the user to slip into a drug-induced coma.

"There are very, very few overdoses on meth, and, if they do overdose, it's because they mixed it with heroin," he said. "The problem with opiate-based drug addiction and heroin is it's so much more deadly than methamphetamine."

Opiate prescription pills are also highly addictive.

"We have seen people that have pulled their own teeth to get into the ER,"  Burns said. "It's a horrible, horrible addiction."

Dr. Eric Ketcham said Thursday the San Juan Regional Medical Center first recognized in 2009 that a growing number of opiate-dependent patients were appearing at the hospital's emergency room and requesting narcotics.

In response, the hospital created the emergency department intervention program to identify those patients and limit their access to opiate medication.

"We were concerned that we were contributing to their ongoing dependence, and we wanted to take a more active role in making sure they were getting their opiate medication from their regular doctor," according to Ketcham, who will discuss the intervention program at Saturday's summit.

Ketcham said 400 patients have been enrolled in the program since 2012, resulting in a 15 percent reduction in administered pills.

Ketcham said he is also working to help treat local opiate addicts. On Monday, he became the medical director for New Mexico Treatment Services, a Farmington-based methadone and buprenorphine clinic.

"We have seen it growing for years," Ketcham said about the epidemic. "It's still growing, despite our intervention."

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, called on members of Congress to pass the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act earlier this month. It is a bipartisan bill that would direct resources toward tackling the opiate and heroin abuse problem, according to a press release.

The bill passed the Senate on March 10. However, a companion bill introduced in the House on Feb. 12, 2015, has been stuck in the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, where it was referred on April 29.

"We are in crisis, and it is getting worse," Udall told the senate on March 8. "More New Mexicans are dying from drug overdoses than ever before."

Saturday's summit will feature U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez as its keynote speaker. Martinez will highlight the HOPE Initiative, a collaborative effort between federal and state agencies to reduce the number of opiate-related deaths in the district of New Mexico.

The prescription drug abuse summit is a free event that runs from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday. It will be held in room 9008 at the San Juan College's Henderson Fine Arts Center, 4601 College Blvd in Farmington.

More information can be found at nmprescriptiondrugabuse.org.