Easy access and low prices have caused two drugs that have generally been uncommon in the area to become one of local law enforcement’s biggest problems.
The Overland Park Police Department reported on Oct. 16 that OxyContin, a prescription painkiller, and heroin were the cause of 22 overdoses in the county through June 16; compare that to 24 cases in all of 2008 and 17 in 2007. County officials are alarmed by those statistics and are pursuing ways to reduce the problem, including a recently announced education campaign.area to become
Karen Bishop of the Johnson County Mental Health Adolescent Center for Treatment said that she has personally seen a decrease in overdose cases for other drugs. She also said that statistics might not even show the entire scope of the drug problem.
“Reported overdoses are far fewer than actual overdoses,” Bishop said. “Most of the clients I see that have overdosed have never had police contact… The shocking numbers for me are now most kids that come in to residential treatment are using opiate (the base for drugs like heroin and OxyContin), and that was not true two years ago.”
The reason for the increase has been traced back to several origins, according to East student resource officer Det. Brady Sullivan. One of these is cost. On the streets, OxyContin goes for about $30 to $40 a pill and heroin sells for between $50 to $100 according to Sullivan. Sullivan noted that Prairie Village’s undercover drug unit is buying more prescription pills like OxyContin from drug dealers than ever before.
“My opinion is that that is just what’s prevalent and easy to get right now,” Sullivan said. “Drugs are like anything else… If three or four people get these clothes and everybody’s like ‘Oh, this is so cool! This is the greatest thing ever!’ then everybody wants those clothes.”
Sullivan also cites the large quantities of prescription pills available for sale on the streets as one of the main reasons they are so popular.
In the past two years, Sullivan said, there has been one overdose because of OxyContin in Prairie Village, and during that time frame an East graduate died because of prescription drug abuse.
“The stigma against it is that [OxyContin is] not one of those nasty horrible street drugs,” Sullivan said. “Prescription drugs, they gotta be healthy and good for you. But when you’re snorting them up your nose, chopping them up and taking eight instead of two, obviously that doesn’t do good things.”
Senior Joe Woods* was injured in the summer of 2008. His doctor prescribed OxyContin and later hydrocodone to deal with the pain. The idea was that Woods would graduate from the OxyContin and move to the hydrocodone, a less potent painkiller. The key phrase “as needed” listed on his prescription became the problem.
Woods originally kept with his normal dose of 10 pills every eight hours, but after a couple of weeks he began to notice more and more of an affinity for the pills. Soon he began mixing hydrocodone pills with alcohol and marijuana. When that wasn’t enough he would go back to his OxyContin stash and take those along with the hydrocodone. As the weeks went by, his hunger for the feeling the pills gave became less and less satiable.
“It got to the point where I would be taking 11 hydro, five Oxy and five or six Tylenol,” Woods said. “If I wasn’t feeling the same [as I did after initially taking the pills] by the middle of the night, I’d snort one of the hydro and then take two or three Tylenol with that so I could get back to the same feeling.”
Woods remembered times when he would take up to 25 pills everyday of the weekend, usually mixed with alcohol or marijuana. During a school day, Woods might “dip out” during lunch to take four or five pills and later that night take five to ten more. All his pills came from prescriptions and his parents never once caught on during his one-year addiction.
For parents who might try to detect if their child is addicted to prescription pills by looking at their school report card, Woods said that wouldn’t have been enough in his case.
“It didn’t really affect me at school… for some reason I was smart around school because I knew I had to keep my grades up to cover the addiction,” Woods said.
By law, Woods was allowed up to five refills of hydrocodone for each prescription he received. OxyContin prescriptions do not allow for any refills and a user must get a new prescription from their doctor for each new bottle.
Woods only saw his doctor once throughout his whole addiction, when he was first prescribed to the drug. From then on Woods made regular trips every three months to his doctor’s office. There, without even a glimpse from his doctor, the office assistant would write him a new prescription with only a simple stamp of the doctor’s signature. This continued on for over a year, but Woods eventually beat his addiction with the help of drug counselors.
The OPPD report tied heroin and OxyContin together because the two are closely related. Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe has recognized the relation and knows what it can bring.
“Because OxyContin’s high is very similar to that of heroin, its an easy segway and when you couple it with its cheaper to buy heroin than it is to buy pills of OxyContin it leads people down that road,” Howe said.
In the 70s and 80s, heroin was about ten percent pure, but nowadays it is about 60 percent pure, according to Assistant District Attorney Don Hymer.
County officials are citing purer heroin as the main cause for the increase in overdoses. An addict will become accustomed to using a certain amount in each high. But when the purity level increases in the heroin by such a large amount, then their normal dose will have a much higher potency and is more likely to cause an overdose.
According to Sullivan, the reason why heroin is not 100 percent pure when it gets to the user is because of a process called “cutting.” Each time the product is sold, he said, the dealer will generally mix the heroin with a similar looking substance so they can increase their profits. This means that when a user purchases ten grams of “heroin” only part of what they buy will be straight heroin; the rest could be a similar-looking substance like baking powder or brick dust.
In the past three years, Howe has seen a substantial increase in the number of possession cases for the two narcotics, OxyContin and heroin. He said that those arrests correlate with the increase in overdose cases and requests for drug counseling the Johnson County Health Department has seen. But this year, the number of reported overdoses has jumped considerably and Bishop believes teenagers are the most affected age group.
Because of these alarming numbers, Howe and other county officials are launching a public awareness campaign to help curb the problem. County officials and area teens will give the presentation to schools and community functions throughout the county. A video featuring a Johnson County teen that recently died due to an overdose will be shown along with the presentation.
“We wanted to humanize it to let people know that this isn’t just some Hollywood deal or some news story, but this is something about people that you might actually know and go to school with,” Howe said.
While the stats are sobering, Howe promises to continue the fight.
“Our goal is for everyone to have a healthy and fruitful high school experience and we’re hoping that people will find alternatives to illegal narcotics because that’s a slippery slope that ends up many times in tragedy,” Howe said.
*Name changed at source’s request