Prescription drug abuse rising

Number of cases continues to increase on Kenai Peninsula

They're getting it from doctors, they're stealing it or they're buying it.


Prescription drug abuse in the central Kenai Peninsula area has risen over the past three years, according to local statistics. Abuse of pills is practiced among people who have legal prescriptions as well as people who don't.

The number of cases involving prescription drugs at the Soldotna Police Department has gone up every year since 2009.

A total of three cases in 2009 involved prescription drugs. The pills seized included OxyContin, Oxycodone and Xanax (Alprazolam). The first two are prescribed for pain while the third is usually prescribed for anxiety disorders.

In 2010, the number of cases involving prescription drugs increased to 14. The pills seized included Valium, Percocet, Clonazepam, Morphine and Prozac among others.

A total of 16 cases involving prescription drugs have occurred this year, according to SPD records.

"It's prevalent and available," Kenai Police Department Lt. David Ross said. "Perhaps more available than some of the illicit drugs, and most have a legal purpose. So, some people can get legal prescriptions and abuse them that way."

Having a legal prescription and overusing the medication makes abusers less at risk for breaking the law, he said.

It's also common for people to report their medications stolen. Medications are stolen from homes, doctors' officers and pharmacies.

A Homer pharmacy was burgled a few years ago, and the individual intended to steal OxyContin. Kenai and Soldotna pharmacies have not yet been targeted, Sgt. Sonny Sabala, Alaska State Trooper with the Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Enforcement, said.

"Some people report having (pills) stolen in the process of replacing them," Ross said. "But we have no way of knowing how much of those are actually stolen."

Pain and anti-anxiety medications are the most common types abused, according to authorities.

Attention deficit disorder medications, such as Ritalin and Concerta, are abused as well, Kristie Sellers, director of behavioral health at Central Peninsula Hospital, said.

Less common opioids -- psychoactive chemicals used to treat pain -- are popping up during arrests.

Federal prosecutors charged 19 individuals, including 17 Peninsula residents, for their involvement in an Oxycodone drug ring in Nov. 2010. The defendants were charged with money laundering and conspiracy to distribute.

The pills came from Nevada. Beginning in approximately June 2009, Nicholas Ghafouri, 26, and Ki Yong Parker both of Las Vegas used prescriptions in their names to acquire 6,200 tablets of Oxycodone, which were distributed in Alaska.

The Peninsula defendants sold the pills in the area and deposited profits into bank accounts in the names of Ghafouri and several co-conspirators.

The bust was a big deal, and afterward the pills became scarce in the area, Sabala said.

The price for the pills went up significantly. An 80-milligram pill before the bust sold around $120, and after the bust sold for $160 to $200, he said.

"I think that right after that happened ... law officials started seeing other types of pills that weren't seen that often," he said. "They're popping up more and more."

An analysis of Statewide Drug Enforcement Unit reports for prescription drug seizures on the Peninsula shows an increase through the past three years.

In 2009, there were 55 seizures of OxyContin and Oxycodone, 6 seizures of Hydocodone and 122 seizures of other pills and tablets.

In 2011, those seizures totaled 69, 17 and 560, respectively.

From a street cop's perspective, Sgt. Stace Escott contends many drug users turned to prescription drugs once producing meth became more difficult.

"It's easier to obtain them," he said. "Out on the streets during traffic stops we're finding lots of syringes and prescription drug paraphernalia."

Pills are obtained in various ways. Stealing from friends and family members who have medications is common.

There is a strong connection between all types of drug abuse and burglary or theft. The majority of burglaries and thefts in the area are drug related, as people commit crimes to support their habits, Ross said.

In addition, abusers commit identity theft by filling out prescriptions in other people's names and then attempting to use the prescription at different pharmacies.

People will continue to fill prescriptions after they no longer need the medication and sell the pills illegally at an increased value. And there's definitely a market out there, Ross said.

"They realize there's monetary value in continuing to get their medication that's paid for by an insurance company or a similar method," he said.

Prescription drug abuse is wide spread, but it's filtered into the younger population, according to authorities.
Abusers are in their mid 20s to early 30s, Sabala said.

More than 7 million Americans abuse prescription drugs, according to the 2009 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's national survey on drug use and health.

The treatment clinics at CPH are seeing an increasing number of younger people with substance abuse issues. A large percentage of their admissions are under 30, Sellers said.

"Drug abuse seems to be impacting our younger population more so than any other subset," she said. "Even under 21 (years old) that come into addiction treatment."

Addiction can start with an injury and subsequent treatment. Sellers has seen individuals who suffered a legitimate injury become addicted to prescription drugs while recovering. Others become addicted through experimenting with diverted prescriptions sold on the street, she said.

When it comes to the younger population pills are similarly bought illegally on the street or obtained within a household.

"Juveniles may go to a party and, all of the sudden, they don't have to worry about going out and finding something, because they can just go into a medicine cabinet and start using," Lt. Anthony April, a trooper with the Bureau of Investigation, said.

Each day approximately 2,500 teens across America use prescription drugs to get high for the first time, according to the Partnership for a Drug Free America.

To rid homes of unused prescription drugs the Drug Enforcement Administration started the National Prescription Drug Take-Back Program. The event finished its third year last month, and about 1,900 pounds of medication was collected in Alaska.

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at