Stop reading this and go look inside your medicine cabinet. Are there any prescription pills in there? What about in your nightstand? Did you hurt your ankle a while back, get prescribed hydrocodone, only take half of the refill and then leave them in the bottle on the shelf? Okay, that’s pretty specific, but here’s the thing. If you have easily accessible prescription pills in your home, you may be supplying a child with drugs. This may sound drastic, but it’s absolutely true. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, or NIDA, prescription pills are the third most abused substance by children. Considering the top two are marijuana and alcohol, the most widely abused substances on the planet, this is an alarming fact. Plus, kids aren’t just taking pills to get high. They’re using them to sleep, study, relieve pain, and/or increase energy levels. So, for many reasons, pill abuse among kids is rampant. The most commonly abused type of prescription pill is the opioid. This includes, among many others, oxycodone, hydrocodone, Percocet, and codeine. Opioid abuse in America, which includes heroin, is currently at an all-time high, and has been on the rise for years now. Heroin abuse is in a class of its own, being illegal. The problem with storing leftover pills at home? That’s where the majority of kids get the drugs. Nearly 70% of people aged 12-17 reported having gotten them from a friend or relative. Where do you think that friend or relative gets them? It’s as easy as using the bathroom at grandma’s house. With 1,600 more kids beginning pill abuse every single day, it would be wise to not leave prescriptions lying around. Prescription pill abuse has spread to every corner of the country, literally. Let’s talk briefly about Alaska’s opioid abuse problem, and then focus on the innovative way the state is getting rid of leftover pills – through chemically reactive disposal bags. Lastly let’s discuss a 2014 study that showed how parents are storing pills throughout the country, and what can be done to better monitor such pills.
Alaska and Opioids
Every single state in America is struggling with opioid abuse. Some states have it worse than others, such as Ohio and Massachusetts. However, it may come as somewhat of a surprise to find out that Alaska has it especially bad. As a matter of fact, Alaska is regularly among the top ten states with the most opioid abuse. In 2013, nearly 15% of state residents reported having abused an illicit substance within the last thirty days. According to Alaska’s 2015 Annual Drug Report, authorities seized over a metric ton of illicit drugs during the previous two years alone. Then, just two months ago, Alaska received a two million dollar government grant to help fight opioid abuse. That’s how bad it’s gotten. As you see, over the past half a decade, things have only gotten worse. Opioid pills are cheaper than heroin in Alaska, something rarely found in the continental US. Perhaps this is partly why the Alaska State Troopers’ Statewide Drug Enforcement Unit, or SDEU, seized over 10,000 pills between 2013 and 2015, the largest by volume of all substances seized. In the aforementioned drug report, the SDEU called prescription pill abuse “a significant problem,” words not used for any other substance but alcohol. [Alaska has a terrifying alcohol abuse problem as well.] Well, the state government knows it has a lot on its hands, and as with all states, much is being done to try and stop the epidemic. On May 17th of this year, a rather innovative method of prevention was introduced into Alaska’s war on opioids.
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Drug Disposal Bags… with an Upgrade
The local story, covered by KTVA out of Wasilla, does not mention who the donor was. It does mention the 25,000 drug disposal bags that were donated to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, or DHSS. These were not ordinary bags, though. They were biodegradable, waterproof, carbon-containing bags that literally destroy opioid pills beyond usability. All you have to do is add water. Andy Jones is the deputy incident commander of the Alaska Opioid Response Team. On Wednesday May 17, his truck was filled with purple bags. These special drug disposal bags actually neutralize opioid pills through a chemical reaction brought on by adding water. Deterra was likely the first company to manufacture and distribute these bags, and the company’s website offers insight into how the bags work: “A person using the Deterra Drug Deactivation System simply puts their medication in a bag containing a carbon that bonds to pharmaceutical compounds when water is added. The person adds water and shakes it up to neutralize the active ingredient in the drug… The biodegradable bag can then be placed into the trash.” Imagine that. Instead of having leftover pills stored in your bathroom or elsewhere, you can simply put them in a bag, add water, shake, and throw the entire package away safely. The DHSS receiving 25,000 of these bags as a donation was a quite helpful weapon to add to the arsenal against opioid abuse. “Reducing the medications that are in our cabinet, not getting them into the hands of individuals that may sell them or get them on the street, and by reducing that means we are hopefully not seeing people as addicted,” said Jones to KTVA, linked above. These bags are being offered free to Alaska residents. With some of the federal grant received in April, the DHSS plans to purchase an additional 60,000 bags to be handed out free of charge over the next two years. The ultimate plan is to have them available “in public health centers, social service agencies, and pharmacies…” Karl Soderstrom is a co-founder of Fiend 2 Clean, a peer-advocacy group based out of Valley, Alaska. The group recently surveyed approximately 150 eighth-grade students regarding opioid pill availability. Over half of them reported that they could literally acquire prescription painkillers themselves. “These are 13 and 14 year old kids that feel like this could be a safe thing to experiment or play with. It’s not,” said Soderstrom to KTVA. “It’s the wild, wild West sometimes out here. We lack resources. We have a very unique state and a very unique problem. Opiates are on the rise here, just like they are everywhere else.”
Pills in the Wrong Hands
The main purpose for Alaska receiving these bags is to prevent children from having access to leftover prescription pills. According to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Drug Education, this is a much bigger problem than the average person might think. A total of 40 households were included in the study, each household representing one teenager and one parent. The teens were chosen from a separate survey which asked about alcohol abuse. All participating teens had reported drinking at least four times in the past year, and also had one parent agree to an interview. The parent of each household was interviewed “about the availability and monitoring of prescription drugs…,” basically being asked if there were any lying around and if any protocol was taken to ensure the children had no access to them. The parents were also asked about any instances where their children were caught abusing pills. The answers were startling. 31 of the 40 parents reported having prescription pills that “could be used by teens for non-medical purposes” simply lying around the house. The other 9 parents had prescriptions in the home as well, but none that “could be used for non-medical purposes,” according to the parents. The truth is that any prescription is possible to be used non-medically. Now, of the 31 parents with ‘abuse-able’ pills in the home, only ONE of them locked up their prescriptions pills. “In most homes, however, medications were stored in parents’ bedrooms, usually in a dresser drawer, in medicine cabinets in bathrooms, or in drawers or cupboards in kitchens. Some parents took no special precautions in storing prescription drugs,” according to the study. What’s worse is that most of the parents expressed zero concern about having prescription pills around the house and easily accessed. Here are some of the reasons parents gave for this lack of concern:
- Children are not interested in prescription pills.
- The available pills could not get a child high.
- The pills are expired and have no effect now.
- Children do not like to swallow pills
Well, folks, it’s time to wake up. Children are interested in prescription pills, and they don’t just take them to get high. Expired pills can absolutely still have an effect, and it’s rather clear that American children have no issue swallowing pills. Approximately 15% of high school seniors reported having abused prescription pills within the past year. On any given day, there are about 3.5 million high school seniors in the country. Therefore, well over 52,000 twelfth-graders are abusing pills. Of these children, 70% report abuse of other illicit drugs as well. This means well over 36,000 twelfth-graders are abusing multiple drugs. The biggest issue of all is that prescription pill abuse is a gateway to heroin abuse.
From Pills to Needles
You are nineteen times more likely to abuse heroin if you’ve ever abused a prescription painkiller. Nearly 9 out of 10 heroin addicts began with prescription pills. This information comes from NIDA, the nation’s leading authority on drug abuse. Back in the 1960s, over 80% of heroin addicts began with just that – heroin. Obviously things have changed. The reason why so many people today are shifting from pill abuse to heroin is simple. The average cost of an opioid prescription is one dollar per milligram. Heroin costs ten cents per milligram. Plus, with a heavy crackdown over the past handful of years on users and doctors alike, it’s become much harder for someone in actual need of an opioid prescription to get one. As written by Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN, “Today’s typical heroin addict starts using at 23, is more likely to live in the affluent suburbs and was likely unwittingly led to heroin through painkillers prescribed by his or her doctor.” This is a very new trend in the history of opioid abuse, and it has left the country in an unprecedented battle against drug addiction. Local, state, and federal government branches are doing all they can. They’re even handing out biodegradable drug disposal bags up in Alaska.
More and more kids are abusing pills every day. Because the switch to heroin later in life is so easy and popular, it’s safe to say we’re breeding heroin addicts. America contains five percent of the world’s population, yet consumes 80% of the world’s opioid painkillers. That’s absolutely ridiculous. Be careful with the pills your doctor prescribes you. Addiction can happen to anyone, as with all diseases. Also, when you do have leftover pills, discard them safely. You simply do not know who may swipe them from your medicine cabinet. At the moment, not all states have what Alaska has, but there are government-approved ways to get rid of your leftover medication, as shown in the FDA link above. Most importantly, if you or anyone you know is suffering from any type of addiction, please reach out for help. The cycle will continue, and worsen, until the cycle is broken. We’re in a crisis as a country, losing another citizen to drugs every nineteen minutes. Please don’t let yourself or someone you know be next.