Editorial: Iowa's prescription drug problem


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In 1999, approximately two people out of every 100,000 in Iowa died from prescription-drug overdoses. The problem, and the public effort against it, was relatively minor in scale.

But from 1999 to 2010 that rate jumped 330 percent to 8.6 out of every 100,000, according to a report from Trust for America’s Health. And Iowa is only the seventh-lowest state in the rate of prescription-drug deaths.

In the region with the highest rates, the Southern states, the rate of overdose deaths is disturbing. West Virginia had 28.9 deaths per 100,000. To put that into perspective, alcohol related deaths in the United States accounted for 28.3 out of every 100,000 in 2007, and that includes vehicle accidents, homicide, suicide, chronic diseases, and 50 other causes of death attributable to alcohol. 

All told, drug deaths — the majority of which are attributed to prescription drugs — have at least doubled in 29 states, and like Iowa, many have even tripled or quadrupled since 1999.

What’s more, prescription drugs have become more popular among teenagers, who may use them as study aids or as a “legal” way to get high.

“Kids don’t understand how powerful [pharmaceuticals] are,” said Steve Lukan, the director of the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy. “These are serious drugs, every bit as powerful as street drugs.”

Quinn Berry, a counselor at the Iowa City-based substance-abuse center MECCA, said a significant and growing portion of the centers’ patients are there because of prescription drugs.

“Adolescents, in particular, use more of the Adderall-type ‘study drugs,’ ” Berry said. “Because they’re prescribed by doctors, people think these drugs are safer or not as addictive. But Adderall is an amphetamine, which means it’s not dissimilar from cocaine.”

Amphetamines are recognized as potentially dangerous across the world. A 1971 U.N. treaty classified amphetamines as a schedule II controlled substance, and it was ratified by 183 countries.

In the United States, schedule II classification means the drug has accepted medical use but also has a high potential for abuse that can lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.

For the amount of damage that these prescription drugs can cause and have caused, action taken to curb abuse has been largely ineffective.

The report found 28 states and Washington, D.C., scored six or fewer out of 10 on “possible indicators of promising strategies to help curb prescription-drug abuse,” such as the use of “rescue drugs” such as naloxone. Naloxone can be administered after overdoses and can be effective at counteracting them.

Iowa has six of these 10 measures in place, including a Prescription Drug Monitoring Program and participation in an expansion to Medicaid that allows for more coverage of substance-abuse services and treatment.

Yet the state still has a ways to go. Iowa does not have a rescue-drug law in place, nor does it have Good Samaritan laws protecting those that come forward to get help for themselves or others.

Simple and largely noncontroversial laws such as these are an easy step for the state to take, and with prescription-drug overdose deaths four times as high as they were in 1999, there’s no time left to delay.

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