Officials See Doubling of Rx Overdose Deaths

From 2001 to 2005, more than 32,000 people died of prescription drug overdoses.

May 20, 2009, 3:44 PM

May 23, 2009— -- Once an active teenager, Jeremy Glass got hooked on pain killers at the age of 15 after injuring his knee playing football for his high school team.

"It was a nightmare," his mother Cyndi Glass said. "We never knew what to expect. He just wasn't the same kid."

In their five-year struggle the family spent more than $100,000 on treatment, but none of it worked.

Finally, one night when he was unable to obtain painkillers, Jeremy was so desperate for a high that he tried heroin.

It was a decision that ended up killing him. Jeremy Glass died of a drug overdose Sept. 8, 2008, at age 20.

But the Glass family is hardly alone. On Wednesday, the government revealed for the first time just how pervasive and dangerous prescription drug abuse has become when it released a report on the threat posed nationally by the problem.

More than 8,500 died in 2005, the last year for which data is available. From 2001 to 2005, 32,153 people died of prescription drug overdoses, and the number of deaths more than doubled during that time frame. And prescription drug abuse is most prevalent among 18- to 25-year-olds.

The report, from the National Drug Intelligence Center and the Drug Enforcement Administration, took reports and data from law enforcement agencies and public health entities to examine the threat posed by prescription drugs in this country.

"Nearly one-third of individuals who began abusing drugs in the past year reported their first drug was a prescription drug: 19 percent indicated it was a prescription opioid," or prescription painkiller, the report found. "Thus, one in five new drug abusers are initiating use with potent narcotics, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone."

"Unintentional deaths from these painkillers exceeded those of cocaine and heroin, and they exceeded the deaths… from gunshot wounds," drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said at a press conference Wednesday.

Drug Abusers 'Usually Young People, Otherwise Healthy'

Dr. Theodore Bania of St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City told ABC News that he's not surprised at the shocking number of prescription drug overdoses.

He sees such drug abusers every day. All addicted, some dying -- and the drugs often cut off lives full of promise.

"These are usually young people, otherwise healthy, who get addicted to these medications and just end up taking too much and die from that," he said. "And it's just tragic for the person themselves who died from it and the family and friends who have to suffer the consequences."

Those addicted to prescription drugs often obtain them by stealing from the medicine cabinets of friends and family members. And there is a growing black market fueled by rogue pharmacies and greedy doctors.

Caught on undercover FBI surveillance video, prosecutors accused Dr. Jorge Martinez of intentionally hooking patients on prescription drugs. Two of them died.

In 2006, a federal jury in Ohio found Martinez guilty on an array of charges, from health care fraud resulting in death to distribution of controlled substances to charges that he trafficked the prescription drug OxyContin. He is serving out a life sentence in a federal prison.

The report also linked the growing prescription drug problem with a rise in crime.

"Although diversion and abuse of controlled prescription drugs is highest in eastern states," it said, "violent and property crimes associated with prescription drug diversion and abuse have increased in all regions of the United States over the past five years."

Some states are trying to come up with new ways to crack down on prescription abuse. In Florida, ground zero for many of the deaths, officials have begun tracking pharmacy sales to keep patients from doctor shopping.

But right now, law enforcement officials admit, they are losing the battle. Far too many are dying.

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