Prescription drug arrests on the rise
ELIZABETHTON — Police here say they are arresting more drivers these days who are taking to the streets under the influence of prescription drugs.
Police Chief Roger Deal said abuse of drugs like methadone and Lortab is on the rise in Elizabethton, and the consequences are sometimes deadly. Deal said drivers charged in two separate accidents on West Elk Avenue last year were under the influence of methadone and other drugs.
The first accident, which occurred in August, resulted in the death of a 35-year-old woman who police say was struck head-on by a driver who was found to have evidence of Diazepam and methadone in his system. Joshua David Whitehead, 227 Centerville Drive, Elizabethton, was bound over to a Carter County grand jury earlier this month to face charges of vehicular homicide in that case.
A second drug-related accident on West Elk Avenue followed in October when a driver who police say was under the influence of methadone set off a chain of events that left a truck loaded with propane on its side near Sycamore Shoals Hospital. That accident resulted in a tedious, day-long cleanup of the volatile propane and sent a 16-year-old passenger to the hospital with serious injuries.
“I really can’t tell you anything good about methadone,” Deal said. “We’ve always had a problem with abuse of prescription drugs, but it seems to be getting worse with the ease of accessibility.”
Deal said he fears many of those involved in methadone treatment may be “taking more than their daily dosages” or mixing their methadone with other drugs and alcohol before getting behind the wheel.
“If that is the case, they are a hazard to themselves and to the public,” the chief said. “I don’t know of any success stories involving methadone. They just trade heroin for methadone.”
Not so, says an official at one regional methadone clinic. Mary Little, program director of the DRD Medical Clinic, Knoxville, said her facility closely monitors the dosages it gives to patients. She said state regulations also require methadone clinics in Tennessee to file annual progress reports on all patients that they treat.
“The idea is that we try to get them back to normal as soon as possible,” she said. “They have to be able to function normally and go to school or work. If a patient decides to mix their methadone with other drugs or alcohol, then that is clearly out of our hands.”
Little said some cases of abuse stem from physicians who over-prescribe methadone as a pain-management drug.
“We’ve had cases of doctors in Knoxville, Morristown and in the Tri-Cities who have sent patients home with a 30-day supply of methadone,” she said. “It is time that physicians take some responsibility for the drug problem.”
Methadone, Little said, is a synthetic drug used to treat patients addicted to “hard-core” opiate-based drugs. While the drug does not produce the euphoria associated with heroin, she said methadone has been found to ease cravings and withdrawal pains. That is one reason methadone has become a popular street drug.
“Addicts will steal or buy someone else’s methadone because it takes the sickness away when they can’t get the drug of their choice, such as Lortab or OxyContin,” she said.
Just last week, the Carter County Sheriff’s Department was called to a home in Hampton to investigate the theft of five 125-milligram bottles of methadone from a locked container.
Time was when law enforcement officers could expect to make the bulk of their DUI arrests at night and on the weekend. Elizabethton Police Officer Mike Merritt, however, says that is no longer the case.
“Our daytime arrests for DUI are increasing, and it is amazing how many of them are prescription drug-related,” Merritt said. “Usually, we find they (the drivers) have mixed their prescription drugs with other drugs and alcohol. It’s absolutely unreal.”
Prescription drug abuse is not limited to just the highways. Deal said his department has seen the number of cases of prescription drug thefts and prescription forgeries it is asked to investigate balloon in recent years.
“Prescription forgery is a problem in Elizabethton, since we are a major shopping district for the county,” the chief said. “They come to town to try to pass forged prescriptions for everything from Valium to OxyContin and Lortab. Painkillers are very popular.”
Deal said his department has been working with area pharmacies to help their employees spot and deal with forged prescriptions. In years past, he said, drug abusers would put prescription pads stolen from the examination rooms of physicians to fraudulent use.
Today, Deal said enterprising drug abusers are using computer-generated prescription forms to obtain controlled medication.
“It’s very frustrating, from a law enforcement standpoint,” the chief said. “Many of these people will forge prescriptions and turn around and sell them just to support their own drug habits.”
Deal said drugs abusers can also obtain powerful pain medication legally by simply lying to their doctor.
“We’ve seen cases where people go to a number of different doctors to get prescription drugs,” he said. “When they have a quantity, they sell them to others.”
Health care workers have become increasingly attuned to spotting patients who attempt to obtain narcotics by fraudulent means. Police officers were called to Sycamore Shoals Hospital on a number of occasions this month when emergency room physicians and nurses discovered patients were attempting to use false identifications to get prescription drugs.
The chief said such vigilance is one of the reasons that court dockets are full each week of cases involving prescription fraud.
“I sometimes think the legislative branch has become numb to the problem,” Deal said.