Having gone to court to win access to the information, The Washington Post and a small West Virginia paper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail (think Star Democrat), have pried loose evidence that 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone tablets were distributed in the US over a seven-year period 2006-2012. Seventy-six BILLION. Any wonder we’ve suffered a nationwide opioid epidemic?
And this data covers only those two pills; it does not include Oxycontin, Percocet, Valium, and so forth—all of which are dangerous and part of the problem.
As I scanned the Post’s stunning articles with their dynamic maps and graphics, I thought of our “Talbot Goes Purple” campaign that Sheriff Joe Gamble and others initiated to combat drugs and opioids locally. Did that tsunami of pills really wash into Talbot County, contributing to deaths of our neighbors right here, or were Appalachia and “those other places” the only ones impacted by this regulatory negligence?
Fortunately—surprisingly—the Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”) database obtained by the Post enables any reader to drill down to annual data on a County basis, so we can actually evaluate that question to some extent. One can even track gross prescriptions to individual pharmacies (and a few doctors).
Pharmacies in Talbot County dispensed thirty-three (33) oxycodone and hydrocodone pills for every man, woman and child in Talbot County, on average, over those seven years. That sure sounds like a lot to me. I was inclined to chalk it up to our older population (median 49.7 years, 12 years older than state average!). We must have the highest number of joint replacements per capita of any County in Maryland if my circle of friends is any indicator.
But in fact, Talbot does not seem to be out of line with the rest of the state; we are right in the middle! The range extends from a low of about 15 pills (Montgomery and Prince Georges) to a high of 59 pills in—get this—Kent County.
But the DEA data reveals that Maryland was spared complete devastation compared to other areas of the Country, particularly Appalachia. (Mingo County WV: 203 pills per person on average over seven years.)
This oxy/hydrocodone report is shocking, and, Sheriff Gamble was happy to spend an hour to drill down into its meaning locally. His main points were these:
Importance: The national data and patterns are obviously jaw dropping. At the State and County levels it could also be very useful to uncover outliers. The data shows individual pharmacy and physician fulfillments (though not individual prescriptions). Prior to the successful lawsuit by the press, the sheriff’s department or other local law enforcement could possibly have gotten the information, but only through an lengthy bureaucratic process that probably would have required a justification in advance.
Pills In Context: Prior to about 2012 pills of all sorts—especially oxycodone and hydrocodone—were a dominant problem because they were cheap and available. Since then, for many reasons, pills have become less available and—in relation to heroine especially—more expensive. Consequently, pills are today dangerous mostly as a “step on the ladder” (Sheriff Gamble’s phrase): a kid who may have toyed with alcohol or marijuana gets his (or her) hands on a pill or two, and experiences that first opioid high. It may be a brief plateau, but once addiction takes hold, the much cheaper and available heroine becomes the main drug of choice.
Two Things People Need To Do: First, sort through your meds for any drugs you do not really need at present….not just expired drugs, but those “left over.” Don’t save them for a rainy day. Deposit them directly into the (free and anonymous) dropbox (photo above) situated to the left of the door to the Sheriff’s Office in the old Black and Decker Plant on Glebe Road. Second, as to any drugs you need to keep on hand, do not let them simply sit in your medicine cabinet. Lock them up somewhere. We all think of the risk of teenagers or kids getting hold of them, but really anyone with incidental access (cleaners, repairmen) can lift a few little pills (worth $30 or $40 each), and if the whole bottle doesn’t disappear, who’s to notice?
The flood of opioids is a historic, world-class scandal. How many Americans—including some in Talbot County– died unnecessarily. How many equivalent World Trade Towers went down, and nary a terrorist to be seen?
Many want to crucify the profit driven players in the opioid trade itself—the manufacturers, the wholesale distributers, and unscrupulous or careless pharmacists and prescribers. But blame is shared by those responsible for regulating this dangerous business, whose indifference and ineptitude–and probably worse–denied Americans the protections that should have applied. Responsibility rests ultimately on the lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who failed us over many years.
Meanwhile, do your part today. Check that medicine cabinet, find those unused dangerous meds, and discard properly (NOT down the toilet). Or lock ‘em up!
Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years.