It should be incomprehensible how something as minuscule as a 10-milligram capsule of Oxy-Contin or Percocet can be more lethal than a four-ton SUV.
However, this is reality in the 21st Century — prescription drugs kill more people under the age of 34 annually than car accidents and it’s a trend that isn’t going away anytime soon.
Although there is no statistic that indicates Ridgefield is any different from neighboring towns, prescription drug abuse and addiction remains at the forefront of the town’s priorities as the national epidemic continues to grow along with number of drug-related deaths in town.
“Deaths make the paper, but what should be talked about is what goes on leading up to these violent, drug-related deaths,” said Liz Jorgensen, a Ridgefield drug and alcohol counselor. “It’s completely based on choice, which means it’s preventable and it’s frightening that something this preventable has surpassed car accident deaths…
“I am tired of going to funerals for kids in this area who have died from opiate-related deaths.”
Is drug addiction a disease?
“There’s no single answer to that,” said Dr. Eric Collins, the physician-in-chief at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan. “Drug addiction can certainly be looked at as a disease, but it’s apart of a much larger, more complex social issue…
“In theory it’s perfect to look at addiction as a disease, but the reality is that when people stop taking their antagonist medications after being treated, over time they regress back into their old patterns of use which quickly turns into abuse…
“Relapse from maintenance medication is a huge issue, but there are more important in the long run such as other health care issues, crime, poverty and some of these problems are interconnected, which makes prescription drug abuse really hard to rank it.”
On a national level, Dr. Collins believes, the country’s tendency to incarcerate rather than it treat drug addiction is a more important issue because of the cost on society. However, at the local, community level there are other social factors that have contributed to the alarming situation.
“Where is this on our list of priorities as a community? It’s at the top,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said. “And it’s not because we want to catch people, it’s because we want to be able to ensure that all members of our community — youth, elderly, middle age — can live a good, healthy life both mentally and physically…
“As a society, we’ve become neighborhoods of backdecks and we’re no longer on the front porch. We don’t care what our neighbors are doing, we’d rather not get involved. We can only control what’s going on in our house so that’s what we’ll do — the mindset is it’s not my business…
“The more people you listen to about the prescription drug problem, the more you begin to sense it connects to other social issues — it’s a microcosm of a much bigger issue taking place,” Mr. Marconi said. “We used to be a great community and we still are, but what needs to change is how we interact with one another and how we support one another, rather than living in a cocoon and watching out for only our own, we need to expand our interests to our neighbors.”
A statewide study in 2009 indicated that 9.6% of high schoolers had used one of the prescription drug “Big 7” — Oxy-Contin, Percocet, Vicodin, Codeine, Adderol, Xanax and Riddalin — in their lifetime for a non-medical purpose —specifically to get high.
A study at Ridgefield High School done that same year put the school on par with the statewide data.
Drug use continues to jeopardize physical and emotional development of the town’s youth, local officials say.
“The mindset teens have towards prescription drugs is similar to the one they have for marijuana — there aren’t too many risks involved in ingesting it, plus there’s this logic that it’s legal, which means its not harmful,” said Rudy Ruggles, the co-chairman of the Ridgefield Coalition Against Substance Abuse.
“All drugs effect the maturation process of the brain at that important, developmental age…
“Use, abuse, addiction — it’s a very steep slope and it doesn’t take as long as you’d think for someone to jump the steps.”
One of every four people who try opiates for non-medical, recreational purposes get addicted, which is the second highest rate for drug addiction behind only tobacco, said Dr. Collins.
“Painkillers and heroin are deadly when people don’t know how much they are ingesting and that becomes the case a lot of the time for people who are trying it for a first or second time,” he said.
Despite the awareness of what drugs are on the street and in the family medical cabinets, it’s still hard to trace the town’s drug problem with so many conflicting voices on where it derives from and what is causing it to spread.
Local officials, like Mr. Marconi, blame the advancement of society and how people interact today, while police and EMS personnel often blame the party culture of alcohol and marijuana that exposes youths to try harder and harder drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, at a young age.
Local psychiatrists, like Ms. Jorgensen, carry that blame over to the parental culture and the amount of pressure kids face academically.
Researchers of addiction and substance abuse blame the harmful way in which drugs are mixed as well as the average age of first-time use.
Rehabilitation doctors blame the landscape of the pharmaceutical industry over the previous three decades as well as the government’s tendency to incarcerate rather than treat those suffering from addiction.
Meanwhile, more and more kids are exposed to more dangerous drugs at a younger and younger age.
However, drugs don’t discriminate based on age.
“Adults are addicted as well — prescription drugs aren’t produced for just one demographic group, there’s just as much drug abuse in adults and that influences the younger generation,” said Ms. Jorgensen.
“We’ve seen it across the board — it’s not a teen-specific issue by any means,” added Detective Brian Durling of the Ridgefield Police Department. “The reason why someone starts is always different, but once they get hooked the results are usually all the same.”
What everyone can seem to agree on the fact that the crisis is an “epidemic” and for prevention to be possible, a breakdown in communication must be repaired.
“In the past they lived in more pain without opiates and they managed,” said Dr. Collins. “What we’ve substituted for living in pain is an epidemic of opiate prescriptions where the increase in overdose deaths parallels the rise in the numbers of pills given per prescription…
“Obviously, the more we see use, the more we see addiction and that’s the root of the problem.”
While the number of drugs available on the market and prescribed to patients is a recurring problem, the rates of misusing prescription drugs have leveled off in the last decade, according to Sue Foster, the vice president and director of policy research and analysis at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
However, this hasn’t stopped deaths, overdoses and general accidents from opiate-based prescription drugs from continuing to soar because users have found more effective ways, more harmful ways to get high through ingesting a mixture of different drugs like heroin and cocaine together, she said.
“Use of one drug is accompanied by other drugs and that’s the problem we’re fighting today,” she added. “It’s not about specific drugs anymore, addiction has policymakers chasing all sorts of different drugs like a game of whack-a-mole. Unless we focus on the disease of addiction rather than the specific drugs, we will never make headway with this problem.”
What Ms. Foster, Ms. Jorgensen, Detective Durling and Dr. Collins agree on is that the rise in street drugs in heroin is directly related to the rise in rate of prescription drugs over the past two decades.
“I don’t know if the genie is entirely out of the bottle, but I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the low rate of prescribing and I don’t even know if we even should,” said Dr. Collins. “Any changes we make must be done delicately, because this a fragile situation…
“I don’t think we know how to put the genie back in the bottle and that’s what makes this a frustrating, long-term process.”
This is the first article in a series about prescription drugs and heroin use, abuse and addiction in Ridgefield. Next week’s article will discuss how addiction forms in the body, where the drugs are coming from and when both local and state officials first noticed the trend of abuse.