Civic leaders seek answers for drug problem

Understanding addiction

Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2003

Editor's note: These stories are two of a six-part series to precede the community summit, "Pain Pills -- Friend and Foe," to take place Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Village Fair. Friday's stories will look at liability related with prescribing and filling pain drug prescriptions and address recognizing addiction and getting help.

As a community summit on the illegal abuse of prescription pain medicine gathers this weekend, Kenai Peninsula civic leaders will discuss the problem and attempt to find a solution.

One point of focus will be the motivation that drives people to drug abuse, whether legally prescribed narcotics or illegal drugs.

A Kenai minister, who has spent more than 15 years working with substance abusers, first in Indiana and now here, believes people abuse drugs because "they don't have anything going on in their lives."

"Drug abusers have a lack of spirituality," said Jon Walters, pastor of United Methodist Church of the New Covenant in Kenai.

"This gives them some happiness in their lives.

"People are always looking to give their lives an extra dimension and those who are addicted are craving something ... anything.

"If we didn't have a population craving something, we wouldn't have this. OxyContin is just part of the big mix of things that are not any good," Walters said.

The community summit, titled, "Pain Pills -- Friend and Foe," will seek to answer why the Kenai Peninsula has only 6 percent of Alaska's population, but has more than 15 percent of the Medicaid prescriptions of OxyContin.

The summit, which is open to the public, is scheduled for 6 to 9 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Soldotna High School library.

Speaking of addicts in general, Walters said, "They all have some borderline amount of self-pity that got them started using.

"Then (the substance) started using them."

Walters recalled a case involving a 40-year-old nurse in Indianapolis.

The woman had everything going for her, he said.

"She was very intelligent, she had a very good job, she made good money, but she started using drugs.

"Eventually she came to the full awareness that her life was not going anywhere," Walters said.

The nurse lived in the neighborhood of the church in which Walters was serving an urban ministry, and one day she came to the realization that she was ready to do something about her life.

She was ready to change.

She came into Walters' church seeking help and she managed to rid herself of her drug addiction.

"She got herself cleaned up and, as far as I know, she's still clean," said Walters, who transferred to Alaska three years ago.

Walters sees the reason for the OxyContin abuse problem on the Kenai Peninsula as being threefold.

"First, a lot of people here are doing manual labor-type jobs such as in the oil industry where there is a high potential for serious injury.

"Second, the doctors who prescribe the drug liberally are known.

"And third, anyone seeking the drugs goes to where there's a ready supply," he said.

"It's like if you're robbing banks. You go to where the money is," he said.

Walters concurred with several law enforcement officers seeking a solution to the OxyContin problem who believe some people become addicted to the euphoria produced by the drug, but some are drawn to the potential financial gain from selling it.

One such officer, Lt. Al Storey of the Alaska State Troopers drug enforcement unit based in Anchorage, said, "People can get as addicted to the money as to the drug."

Walters said two doctors active on the peninsula now, say "they are helping people obtain OxyContin because of the preestablished situation created by two doctors who ran pain management clinics here a while back and liberally prescribed OxyContin."

As a solution to the problem, Walters said creating a public awareness of the problem is a first step. Residents will then solve the problem, he said.

"The creativity of the public is amazing," he said.

"The public has the ability to look at the legal drug problem and figure out what's wrong. We have solutions," he said.

"Ultimately if we had a legitimate pain clinic, we wouldn't have these problems.

"People operating the clinics ask questions when someone comes in complaining of chronic pain. They ask them if the pain isn't just something in their head. They ask them about the level of pain they're experiencing and about what works for them.

"They're usually seen as friends, and they eventually work through the problem," Walters said.

He also said general practitioners could refer patients to the pain clinics for treatment.

Walters said only 1 or 2 percent of doctors on the Kenai Peninsula are considered to be liberal providers, but "anywhere you have an availability of anything, you're going to have a problem."

"Once the public consciousness becomes present, however, anything is possible."

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