Focus On Talbot: Lock ‘Em Up! By Dan Watson

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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.

Pills by County

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.

Timeliness: The publicly released data set is seven years old. It would have been more helpful before the horse was out of the barn. Since 2012 the drug scene has morphed somewhat.

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. 

Letters to Editor

  1. Hugh Panero says

    Thanks so much for writing this piece “Lock ‘Em Up. I was also stunned when going through the data. While capitalism has many fine attributes the DEA database reveals the appalling greed across the entire drug industry “supply chain’ that occurs when capitalism is unchecked. I cannot think of a better use for a community news site then to drill down deeper to uncover how our Spy communities in Talbot and Kent County were impacted. Unlike an episode of the Wire, all the villains in this tale wore suits or lab coats. Generic drug companies, acting just like illegal drug cartels, supplied millions of deadly pills from 2006-2012 and all the supply chain players looked the other way while counting the cash.

    In Talbot County, distributors and manufacturers we have never heard of like McKesson Corporation supplied (2,255,503 pills) and Walgreens (1,904,590 pills) leading the way. And lets not forget our neighborhood Easton pharmacies like Walgreens (1,973,680 pills sold) and Hills Drug Store (1,491,100 pills sold) that were the street dealers in this tale. All these players contributing to the 33 pills per person avg. in Talbot County, which shockingly was almost “double” in Kent County. The New York Times and the Washington Post have done a terrific job writing on this issue. The Post recently described the nationwide distribution of these addictive pills as more like a”flash flood, spiking from 8.4 billion in 2006 to 12.6 billion in 2012.” A flash flood that led to billions of dollars of profits for the drug companies. Adding “as a point of comparison doses of morphine, another mainstream treatment for severe pain, averaged slightly more than 500 million a year throughout the seven-year period.” The drug companies acted like cigarette companies spinning false claims about the addictive qualities of their product.

    The industry players also had a obligation to report suspiciously large order under the Controlled Substance Act. They did not. All of these players should be held accountable for this drug epidemic that killed many of our neighbors. The executives in charge need to be held accountable and large fines should not be the only punishment and the government needs to ensure this does not happen again.

    • Dan Watson says

      Agree with every point. But in addition: WHY did the DEA keep all this information secret for so long–and it is STILL locked up but for years 2006-12! Why did the Post et al have to chase a lawsuit to get it? Where was the WV and VA Congressional Representative (and Senators) for Mingo County in letting the info stay hidden? What about Andy Harris prying loose info so we can know what’s happened with this in MD since 2012.

      There is a ton of blame to spread around.

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