People throughout the North Country are deeply troubled by the Dec. 21 death of a 16-year-old girl in Lewis and by police's announcement Wednesday that the cause of her death was an accidental overdose of prescription drugs.
Ashley Grady somehow found oxymorphone pills that had been prescribed to another member of her family, took too many of them and died as a result. Her sister found her in her bedroom, not breathing, and 911 was called, but it was too late.
Miss Grady was a 10th-grader at Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School. She was pretty, athletic and reportedly well liked. Her death would be heartbreaking no matter what the circumstances, but it's a startling wake-up call amid reports by many medical and law-enforcement officials that prescription drug abuse has become an "epidemic" in the North Country.
We don't know why Miss Grady took the pills, but in many ways, that doesn't matter. There are all kinds of reasons people start taking others' prescriptions or taking too many of their own: from pain relief to boredom relief, catharsis or experimentation, to add excitement or to ease stress. There's no typical case, but parents should take heed that young people of various inclinations - honor students, athletes, punks and hippies alike - often raid family medicine cabinets. Some of these drugs are so addictive that all it takes is one high and they're hooked.
Parents must make sure to lock up drugs and keep them in their original containers, and no one should ever take another person's prescription drugs.
But these factors are not new. The reason this problem is worse now than before is that our society has become awash in pills. Throughout New York, the number of prescriptions for all narcotic painkillers increased from 16.6 million in 2007 to nearly 22.5 million in 2010, according to a report issued this week by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office. That's more than a 35 percent jump in three years, and it may have gone up since then.
Resources for help with prescription drug abuse:
St. Joseph's Addiction Treatment and Recovery Centers, 159 Glenwood Ave., Saranac Lake, NY. 12983
518-891-3950 or 877-813-8647
Citizen Advocates, North Star Chemical Dependency Services, Saranac Lake
We don't need all those extra pills. The over-prescription pattern that, if we look on the bright side, may have begun from doctors' compassion has bred awful things: deaths, lives devastated by addiction - a Port Henry woman shared her haunting story in an Enterprise profile published Dec. 17 (see first link at right) - and an international criminal industry that trains a whole class of people how to lie to score drugs from doctors and pharmacies. (See second link at right.) Worse, they're buying them largely with our tax money via programs like Medicaid.
The toll of this addiction is awful in how it can mentally and emotionally take over a person, ruining relationships with friends and family members. The toll on an addict's body is also gruesome. In the North Country, the AG's office reported, health care facilities have experienced a staggering increase in the percentage of non-crisis admissions for prescription narcotic abuse. In Franklin County, the number of people who sought such treatment more than quadrupled, from 34 to 127, from 2007 to 2010. The state Department of Health says the number of prescriptions given out in Franklin County for two of the most commonly abused narcotics, hydrocodone and oxycodone, increased 49 and 48 percent, respectively, from 2008 to 2010.
Health care practitioners are taking steps to stop feeding drug dealers and addicts, but our society is just at the beginning of dealing with this problem. These folks are exploiting huge gaps in communication and protocol between various health care providers. State Sen. Betty Little says she expects the Legislature to address the problem this year, and AG Schneiderman has proposed a bill he calls the Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing Act, or I-STOP. Something along those lines is probably needed, although there will almost certainly be roadblocks having to do with HIPAA, the federal patient privacy law that went into effect a decade ago.
In the meantime, no new law is needed for the most important ways to relieve this problem:
-Doctors must start being more conservative about prescribing drugs and slowly wean Americans off the high level of medication we've become used to these last few years.
-Drug companies must own up to the fact that, intentionally or not, they've made a ton of money off of all this. They profit greatly from a drug market saturated with their inherently dangerous products, yet U.S. politicians don't stand up to Big Pharma because its money helps fuel their campaigns. That political cesspool must be cleaned up, and drug companies should play a role - perhaps a monetary one - in curing this drug-abuse epidemic, the same way tobacco companies now must pay states to clean up the messes made by their risky products. Unlike with tobacco, though, drug companies have something to gain, reputation-wise: They can either become known as addiction profiteers or caring, responsible healers. It's up to them.
Changing the national culture like this is slow, heavy lifting, but that's the root of the problem.