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MS Opioid Epidemic Mirror's Nation's Struggle with Prescription Pill and Heroin Abuse

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Hydrocodone Pills
Desare Frazier

Mississippi in is the midst of an opioid epidemic that mirrors the nation's struggle with prescription pain pills and heroin abuse. In the first of a three part series MPB's takes a closer look at the problem.

"As soon as I took it and it hit me it was just I fell in love instantly," said Steve.

Thirty-eight year old Steve is a recovering opioid addict.  We're not using his real name. The former Mississippi narcotics police officer recalls the first time he took Percocet, a prescription pain pill a friend gave him. He was 17. 

"I would say it's like when it's really cold outside and someone gives you a blanket that's been inside and it's just warm and it just embraces you. It's just that feeling of bliss," said Steve. 

A feeling that masked Steve's insecurities. He struggled emotionally partly because of his dad, an IV drug user and dealer, who was in and out of prison. His parents divorced and he longed for a father figure. Steve became addicted to Dilaudid, an opioid pain pill, and developed a 20 pill a day habit. At about $16 per tablet, it became too expensive. He turned to heroin for a cheaper more intense high.  

"It seems like it makes it easier to deal with problems because you don't care. You just don't care. You know, someone could drop dead in front of you and it's like 'oh they're dead.  We need to call the police,' " said Steve.

Mark Stovall oversees the Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Services at the state department of mental health.  He says opioid abuse crosses all ages, races, education and income levels. 

"Probably in 2014 which is some of the most current information I have, we've seen about a 5.1% increase in usage of opioids especially heroin use. That's a big problem. I literally expect to see that number triple in my next year's data," said Stovall. 

Opioids release a powerful surge of dopamine in the brain that creates a sense of euphoria. Even those who take the medication as prescribed can become addicted. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call opioid abuse the nation's number one health problem. Americans consume 95% of the world's Hydrocodone, the most widely prescribed opioid.  Four out of five new heroin users first took the prescription drugs. Mark Stovall.

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"We're seeing much more of the use of heroin especially in the northern parts and southern parts of the state. Wherever states touch you're going to have a lot of heroin coming across the border line," said Stovall.

The Mississippi Pharmacy Board reports last year, doctors wrote nearly eight million prescriptions for narcotics. Prescriptions with Hydrocodone as the active ingredient numbered just under two million. Also last year, 108 Mississippians died from opioid abuse according to the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics. Veterans are also at risk of addiction. David Walker, with the VA Medical Center in Jackson, says troops were given opioids for pain while in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

"And so we do know that sometimes up to 50% of patients coming back may struggle. What percentage out there are actually addicted I don't know. Not all veterans actually get their care in our system," said Walker.

Walker says those prescribed opioids through the medical center are closely monitored. Dr. Daniel Edney, President of the Mississippi State Medical Association says often people take more than the prescribed dose. The drugs have a sedative effect and when mixed with alcohol can be deadly.

"The sedative effect it causes patients to get sleepy, sedated, go to sleep and it also depresses their respiratory drive. So while they're asleep they just stop breathing," said Edney. 

The association is reeducating doctors about opioids and alternatives to managing pain like therapy, non-addictive medicines and chiropractic care.  Putting people in jail won't solve this crisis according to Sam Owens Director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics. He says people get opioids from family, friends, forged prescriptions and doctor shopping.  Criminals fill the demand too.

"You know we've seen a rash of drug store burglaries and robberies and attempted burglaries over the last three or four years and those numbers are up," said Owens.

Healthcare professionals licensed by the Drug Enforcement Agency to prescribe narcotics, must be registered with the Mississippi Pharmacy Board's Prescription Monitoring Program. They don't have to use it. But more than 12,000 prescribers and pharmacists are recording prescriptions in the electronic system. Dana Crenshaw is the director. 

"It's utilized from an addiction perspective. It's utilized from a doctor shopper perspective. But most importantly it is utilized for the practitioners to make an executive decision on whether to fill a prescription or write a prescription," said Crenshawl. 

Crenshaw urges doctors not to just cut patients off, but help them get treatment. Mark Stovall with the Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Services.  There's a lot of neuroimaging and studies that are out there that show this is a disease. It's not just somebody who is bad," said Stovall. 

Steve, the former police officer we talked to, stayed clean for 11 years by going cold turkey and attending 12-step recovery meetings. He relapsed while working narcotics, resigned and went into treatment. He hasn't used in eight months. 

"As much as I would like to I can't, I can't go back and not be a drug addict. I can't go back and mend those relationships that I destroyed. But what I can do is be a positive example from here forward and maybe by the grace of God I can help the next person who was just like me," said Steve.  

Steve says educating Mississippians about opioids and treatment will save lives.