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The hidden danger of powerful pain pills

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By Rob McKenna
Their stories are devastating: A Bothell couple whose 17-year-old son lost his life to a toxic combination of prescription and over-the-counter drugs, a Mukilteo parent whose high-schooler’s fatal addiction started when he smoked OxyContin, and a Seattle physician whose 24-year-old son died from an overdose of Oxycodone and cocaine
For those with debilitating pain, prescription pain pills can be a godsend. But the relief comes with a significant downside: many of the most common painkillers can be easily — and lethally — abused.
The Bothell teen, Ryan DePuy, was a popular, athletic kid. His dad, Scott, has made it a mission to warn parents about the hazards lurking in the bathroom cabinet. “Prescription medication is more readily available than any illegal drug or alcohol,” Scott writes on his Web site, “Not only do teens need to know, but parents need to understand that their prescription medications need to be locked up.”
Popular prescriptions like OxyContin, Methadone and Vicodin are “opioids,” the pharmaceutical cousins of heroin. To access the addictive high, addicts have figured out that certain pills can be crushed, smoked or snorted. Teens have discovered this, as well. They’re taking meds from their parents, trading or selling them to their friends. Teens frequently combine the drugs they’ve obtained, since they don’t understand the potentially deadly consequences. National and state research shows that this is a huge problem, with 12 percent of 12th-graders admitting to experimenting with prescription drugs. Alarming numbers of younger kids are trying it, too.
The end result is that in our state, prescription drugs now kill more people than meth, cocaine and heroin combined.
At the Attorney General’s Office, we’ve used funds from consumer protection settlements with drug manufacturers — including the makers of OxyContin — to provide more than $1.7 million in grants to promote drug abuse prevention. The grants have gone to statewide anti-drug programs for teens. They’ve sent more than $680,000 to the Department of Health for the initiation of a drug monitoring program to prevent addicts from receiving duplicate prescriptions.
We also recognize that American Indians are disproportionally impacted by this epidemic. That’s why one of our grants will open two new Boys & Girls Clubs on Native American lands by 2011, giving tribal kids access to the club’s inventive substance abuse programs.
Tackling this epidemic will require all of us to make small changes in our behavior to become more aware about what lurks in our medicine cabinets. This month is National Medicine Abuse Awareness Month. Let’s take the opportunity to remember three vital steps to stem the availability of potentially dangerous medications: check, lock, dispose.
Check your medicine cabinet for prescription pain pills. Lock up drugs that can be taken by teens or others. And dispose of unused medications by taking them out of their original containers, putting them into a sealable plastic bag, crushing and mixing them with an undesirable substance, such as coffee grounds or cat litter. That container may then be put in the household trash. Not only does this process strongly reduce the chances of theft, but it also provides a disposal method that prevents medications from being flushed down toilets, where they may end up polluting our waterways. I’ve put the how-to instructions, as well as which prescription drugs to look out for, on my Web site:
Because of the hidden danger of prescription drug abuse, too many of our young (and not-so-young) people are at serious risk. Let’s bring this threat into the open by talking to our families, friends and neighbors about the perils of prescription pain pills. And let’s reduce the availability of these drugs to those who might abuse them by remembering those three words: check, lock, dispose.

Rob McKenna is Washington’s attorney general.

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