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Arizona Take-Back To Combat Prescription Drug Abuse, Heroin Epidemic

There is a prescription drug abuse problem in the United States that has led to a heroin epidemic.

In Arizona, heroin overdoses have more than doubled in the last several years and, in 2007, drug overdose deaths overtook motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of injury-related deaths in the state. That’s still true today, according to Sheila Sjolander, assistant director for Public Health Prevention Services at the Arizona Department of Health Services.

“There’s about one death a day from prescription opioid pain relievers, so it’s really a preventable and unfortunate tragedy that’s occurring across Arizona,” she said.

That’s why on April 30 the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is holding its 11th annual Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. More than 40 state, local and tribal are participating.

At the event, there will be collection sites set up all over the state where you can take your unused prescription drugs and dispose of them — no questions asked.

At past take-back events in Arizona, the DEA has collected more than 45 tons of unwanted or expired prescription drugs, according to the agency. This keeps them out of the hands of addicts, and safe from being misused or abused.

It’s important to keep prescription pain killers locked up, according to Adonis Deniz, Jr., prevention coordinator with Mercy Maricopa Integrated Care, because there’s a clear link between the nation’s heroin epidemic and prescription drug abuse — especially among young people.

“Heroin use is on the rise, primarily with younger adult, kind of college age, into their mid-20s,” he said. “What we’ve seen the last few years is kind of a slow but steady increase in the deaths related to heroin, and a lot of that stems from the increase in prescription drug use among youth.”

He said, it’s a combination of accidental misuse and peer pressure. Young people are taking prescription pain killers after they have a surgery or at a party and they’re getting addicted. Then, when those prescription pills become too expensive or too hard to get, they often turn to heroin, Deniz, Jr. said.

“It can be expensive and a little bit difficult to access once the addiction kind of takes over,” he said. “So, heroin is a lot cheaper and, anecdotally, it’s a lot easier to access versus getting opioid medications.”

Deniz Jr. said these are very powerful, fast-addictive drugs. And their chemical make-up is very similar to heroine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported people who are addicted to opioid prescription pain killers are 40 times more likely to be addicted to heroin.

Sjolander said people often abuse extra prescription drugs that are just left around the house.

“In fact, the data from the Arizona Youth Survey tells us that about three quarters of youth who misuse prescription drugs are getting them from family and friends, or right out of the home,” she said. “Which is why it’s so important to safely store prescription drugs and to dispose of them properly.”

The Arizona Department of Health Services is also trying to raise awareness about this with specific professions, like realtors and funeral directors, Sjolander said. They’ve also done some work in the last few years to try to guide doctors, emergency departments and pharmacists about best practices for prescribing opioids.

The department also launched the Arizona Substance Abuse Partnership to help address the problem in the state. And, the Arizona State Board of Pharmacy created the Controlled Substances Prescription Monitoring Program so healthcare providers use a database to look up a patient’s record and see if they’ve gotten a prescription recently.

Since the medical community began addressing pain much more aggressively in 2000, the amount of prescription opioids prescribed has jumped, Sjolander said.

“So, low and behold, here we are a good 15 or so years later and we’ve seen a tremendous growth in the sheer number of prescription opioids being dispensed, it’s like increased four-fold in that amount of time, as well as the number of drug overdose deaths due to prescription opioids,” she said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has beed modified to reflect the correct spelling of heroin.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.