Summit Co.: Prescription drug abuse rising |

Summit Co.: Prescription drug abuse rising

Ashley Dickson
Summit County correspondent
Vail CO, Colorado

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado ” A sharp rise in the abuse of prescription drugs ” and eight fatal overdoses in Summit County since 2003 ” has local authorities following their counterparts nationwide in cracking down on the “legal” way to get high.

“A lot of people don’t think it’s abuse because, at the end of the day, these are legal drugs,” said Summit County Undersheriff Derek Woodman, the leader of the drug task force.

But the consequences can be just as damaging as the use of illegal drugs, resulting in addiction and even death.

“Most people who abuse started out legitimately needing the medication,” Woodman said. “Then you build up a tolerance, want more, and then you’re hooked.”

So far in 2008, the county drug task force has investigated 20 cases locally.

“Right now, Colorado ranks fifth in the nation for prescription-drug fraud,” said Summit County Coroner Joanne Richardson, who has attributed a growing number of deaths involving young adults to prescription drug abuse.

“The problem has always been there, but now people are getting better at playing the system and going to different doctors and different pharmacies,” she said.

Such “doctor shopping” allows patients to garner multiple refills of prescriptions, and is the target of several new federal and state initiatives.

“The key is education and talking to pharmacists about the warning signs of someone who may be abusing,” Woodman said.

To monitor the circulation of prescribed medication in the county the Drug Task Force has made a habit of checking in with local doctors and pharmacists to gain more information about cases that may constitute abuse.

“Some pain management does require a high volume of very intense drugs, and only a doctor can really decide that,” Woodman said. “We typically do training once a year for people in the medical field, and they are always very cooperative when it comes to working with us.”

In addition to prevention and education through local law-enforcement agencies, the state recently developed an electronic database to ensure that all pharmacies have access to patient prescription histories.

The Electronic Prescription Drug Monitoring Program database maintains records of prescriptions that have been dispensed by Colorado pharmacies and from out-of-state pharmacies that ship prescriptions into Colorado.

“Chain pharmacies use this database to look up every patient’s prescription history,” Jim Driscoll with the Colorado Retail Council said. “That data in turn checks for abuse or doctor shopping.”

The program allows pharmacists to gather information about the patients they serve and to ensure that their prescribing and dispensing is appropriate for the circumstances presented.

For instance, if a patient is taking OxyContin, the pharmacist would be able to review when the patient was first prescribed the drug, how many providers prescribe for the patient, how often, and from what pharmacies the patient is receiving prescriptions.

“Prevention really rests on the shoulders of anyone dispensing and writing prescriptions,” said Chris Lines with the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies. “We’re counting on the general public and the pharmacists to be the watchdogs for anything illegal, and then we investigate the matter wholeheartedly.”

Prescription drugs like Diazepam, Codeine and Fentanyl are some of the more powerful drugs that have led to fatal overdoses, but medications as common as Benadryl ” an over-the-counter allergy medicine ” can result in death if not used properly.

“When mixed with alcohol, medications of any kind can be very dangerous,”

Richardson said. “People need to be aware of the warning labels on everything. They are there for a reason.”

Although prescription drug abuse is increasingly being linked to teenagers nation-wide, local law-enforcement agencies have yet to investigate any individuals under the age of 18 for misusing prescriptions.

“Luckily, through education, doctors and pharmacists up here are now more in tune to what may have been ignored in the past,” Woodman said.

Ashley Dickson can be reached at (970) 668-4629, or at

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