Drug overdoses kill more Kentuckians in recent years than car crashes. Many of those who die overdose on prescription pills, according to state officials.
The first ever Kentucky Drug Abuse Prescription Summit was held at UK Hospital. Politicians, prosecutors, law enforcement, educators and medical professionals attended the daylong event, talking about collaborative approaches to curbing pill abuse.
The summit brings together leaders from law enforcement, healthcare and education. All of them focusing on the growing epidemic of abuse and the crimes related to those addictions.
"There's no doubt, in Kentucky, in this nation, that we have a problem and it's killing our people," Gov. Steve Beshear said as he opened the summit.
The governor promised to lead a push to shut down rogue medical professionals who are overprescribing painkillers. Beshear told reporters his administration is helping draft legislation aimed at tracking down so-called pill mills and "the pill pushers in white coats."
"The vast majority of our doctors are honorable folks doing a good job, but we've got some of those people in this state ... who are criminals and they're abusing their privilege of being a medical professional," the governor said. "And we're going to go after them. We're going to run them out of this state."
The measure to be introduced in coming days in the Kentucky General Assembly also would bolster a prescription monitoring program to ensure that it tracks all drug prescribers.
On average, about 80 people die each month in Kentucky due to overdoses of legal and illegal substances, according to FBI intelligence analyst Anthony Carter. That figure is based on findings by coroners or medical examiners, he said, adding that he thinks the true monthly death toll from overdoses is close to 100. Addiction woes are widespread, he said, noting that 1 in 5 Kentucky teens abuse prescription drugs. Also, increasing numbers of newborns are treated for drug withdrawal syndrome, he said.
Tougher efforts aimed at curtailing the illegal prescription pill trade can't come soon enough, some local officials said.
In Floyd County, pill abuse is responsible for most of the theft, child support, domestic violence and other criminal cases, Turner said. The area has been hit by a rash of armed robberies of pharmacies, gas stations and convenience stores, and almost all were rooted in a desire to obtain painkillers, he said.
In less than a one-month period recently, six armed robberies occurred in a 10-mile area of Floyd County, he said. In the pharmacy holdups, masked robbers wielding shotguns demanded pills. "It's basically turned into the Wild West," he said. Some people in his area are unable to get jobs because they can't pass a drug test, he said. That has created a demand for urine, sold in jars at some flea markets and other places, he said. Authorities have found stacks of food stamp cards that pill peddlers received in exchange for painkillers, he said. Some people have pulled their own teeth to get a short-term supply of painkillers from dentists, he said.
Iraq war veteran Dustin Gross counts himself lucky. He said he's been clean and sober for nearly 14 months after rehab and treatment for his prescription drug addiction.
Gross told the conference that he never took pain pills until he was wounded in Iraq. A roadside bomb shattered his left foot, broke his right foot and caused a brain injury. He said he found ample supplies of painkillers afterward, and resorted to pawning, stealing and lying to get the money to feed his addiction. "It became No. 1 in my life," he said. "Nothing else seemed to matter."
"I pawned, I stole, lied, cheated, It became number one in my life," said Gross. "I needed education. I think if a lot of people had the same education I did, things could get a whole lot better."
Procesutors and others said Kentucky can't prosecute its way out of the problem, a nod to the role of treatment to try to turn around lives and reduce costly prison populations. Beshear noted that his state budget proposal included starting Medicaid coverage for outpatient substance abuse treatment for adults and adolescents in Kentucky.
Beshear said his proposal would provide treatment for about 5,800 in a two-year period. It wouldn't meet the total demand, but it's a start, he said. "Good, effective treatment programs do work, and people do recover from these kinds of addictions and they can become productive," the governor said.
But presenters say education isn't the only solution. Targeting doctors who over prescribe is another step officials plan on taking.
"We must not demonize the entire medical community, the majority of them are doing good work under very difficult circumstances, but we do have the few who are causing trouble," said Governor Beshear.
Prescription drug abuse has become so rampant in parts of eastern Kentucky that some people yank out their own teeth to get fresh supplies of painkillers to feed their addiction, a prosecutor said Wednesday. Others are trading food stamps for pills or even buying urine to pass drug tests. Floyd County Commonwealth's Attorney Brent Turner said his area is awash in prescription pills that are peddled illegally, and he warned the consequences are broken families, unemployment and rising crime.
"We're not treading water, folks, we are drowning in a sea of pills," Turner said during the summit. "And if something is not done, the whole region is going to be destroyed."