Features, stories, and reported articles written by Julie Brown.

Police Combat Rise in Prescription Drug Abuse

Richmond Confidential | September 2012

You won’t find a pair of shoes hanging from the power lines high above 8th and Lincoln in Central Richmond. Instead, orange and red cough syrup bottles dangle from ropes flung across the wires, a signal that hits of codeine are sold on this street.

“It’s a trendy drug,” Richmond Police Officer Tony Diaz said, as his patrol car passed slowly under the bottles. Diaz and his partner, Officer Matt Stonebraker, said they see prescription drug abuse in Richmond all the time. Drinking codeine is as common as smoking a joint of marijuana, they said.

Richmond, like cities big and small across the country, is experiencing a rise in prescription drug abuse. According to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, prescription drugs are the second-most abused drug in the nation, behind only marijuana.

Bottles of cough syrup hang from power lines in Central Richmond. They are both a signal that hits of codeine can be found here and also a testament to the growing presence of abused prescription drugs on the streets of Richmond. PHOTO: Julie Brown

Bottles of cough syrup hang from power lines in Central Richmond. They are both a signal that hits of codeine can be found here and also a testament to the growing presence of abused prescription drugs on the streets of Richmond. PHOTO: Julie Brown

Earlier this month the Richmond Police Department installed a drug drop-off box in the lobby, where users can dispose of expired or unwanted medicines safely and anonymously. Chief Chris Magnus unveiled the white box, marked with the seal of the Richmond Police Department, before media and the public Sept. 5, with California State Senator Loni Hancock, Councilmembers Corky Booze and Jeff Ritterman, and representatives from the police force.

The Police Department received a $250 grant from the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators to cover the cost of installation for the bin. They are saving money on a service to take away the medicines through the efforts of Officer Tim Simmons, a licensed pharmaceutical technician who is managing the disposal process.

“This is the solution,” Hancock said at the unveiling. “This is going to make all the difference in the lives of many, many citizens.”

Magnus said the police also are seeing an increase in theft tied to prescription drug use. Instead of going straight to the jewelry box, break-in thieves will head to the medicine cabinet in search of drugs they can take or sell on the street, he said.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an annual study of some 70,000 people, revealed that more than half of users accessed painkillers through friends and family members — with or without permission. Of those friends and family members, more than 75 percent got their prescription from a doctor, the survey suggested, while only one user in 20 bought painkillers from a drug dealer or stranger.

Those numbers place pressure on Josh Speck, a pharmacist at Central Pharmacy in Richmond. It’s become part of his job description to screen valid prescriptions from illegal users.

“You have to be aware,” Speck said. “You have to be cognizant of the doctor, the types of drugs that are abused, that are commonly ordered.”

Speck asks questions while filling a prescription: Why are they getting oxycodone? Why do you want to fill a prescription written by a doctor in Fremont here in Richmond? He looks at the maximum dose per day and the diagnosis. “What are you going to use the codeine for?” Speck said he’ll ask patients. If they say pain, that’s a flag because codeine is a cough suppressant, Speck said.

“Pharmacies aren’t going to be replaced with robots because there has to be someone who monitors this,” he said.

The line on legality for prescription drugs rests on the label. A user may take oxycodone, vicodin, and a range of other painkillers under the supervision of a doctor. But as soon as that prescription expires, or if it’s not your name on the bottle, that’s when prescription drugs become illegal, Officers Stonebraker and Diaz said.

Once you start taking prescription drugs — legally or illegally — it’s hard to stop and it’s easy to become addicted. Ginger Edwards, a counselor at Ujima Family Recovery Services, said that when she first started working in drug and alcohol treatment 12 years ago, problems with prescription pills were “once in a blue moon.”  Today, about one in four patients she sees suffers from addiction to painkillers, she said.

“A lot of people are surprised on how quickly they get addicted to it,” Edwards said.

The recovery from pain pills is similar to getting off heroin — marked with the excessive pain and agony of withdrawal, Edwards said. City officials at the unveiling of the drop box said a key reason for disposing of the drugs with the city is to keep them out of the hands of family members or friends looking to fill that craving.

“Make sure that you protect your own,” Councilmember Booze said. “Please, please do not drop them in the toilet. That’s the worst place you could put them … Those drugs just keep going back and back and back into the system.”

Medicines for the drop box may be in pill form only – no liquids – and may be dropped in a bottle or plastic bag. Magnus asked people who drop off expired prescriptions to black out any name or identification on the bottle.

While the drop box will be in the Police station year-round, the Hilltop Mall Richmond Police Sub-Station, will hold a Prescription Drug Take-Back Day on Saturday Sept. 29 from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.