Whitley County Coroner Andy Croley spoke to the Whitley County UNITE Coalition Monday about drug-related deaths in Whitley County.
Over 18 months, Whitley County has averaged nearly one drug related death per week, Coroner Andy Croley told the Whitley County UNITE coalition Monday evening.
In 2011, there were 51 confirmed drug related deaths in Whitley County. Through June 25, there have been 23 confirmed drug related deaths in Whitley County with another 10 cases with toxicology results still pending.
"I know these are our stats for Whitley County, but I can promise you that all 120 counties in Kentucky are going to have the same prescription medication problem that we are having here," Croley said.
"The problems we are seeing is through legal medication that is being prescribed to people, who are abusing those in a lot of ways. Everybody wants to talk about that it’s an epidemic. It’s really a pandemic. It is all over the nation."
Croley also mentioned one of the most high profile overdose deaths in recent Whitley County history that occurred on Jan. 5, 2010, in the parking lot of Williamsburg City Hall where three people were coming back from a trip to a Florida pain clinic when one man died in the back seat.
The group’s navigational device lead them to Williamsburg City Hall when they were looking for a hospital.
Croley, Operation UNITE Director Karen Kelly and others spoke during the meeting, which was attended by over a dozen people, about the regions drug problem, specifically overdose deaths and problems with prescription medication.
Croley said that the type of drugs he is seeing in most overdose deaths are prescription drugs.
The most common drug found in Whitley County drug related deaths this year is Alprazolam, which was found in 23 percent of victims, followed by Oxycodone in 13 percent of victims and marijuana in 9 percent of victims, Croley said.
Kelly said in terms of drugs on the streets that Operation UNITE is seeing similar numbers from around the region but that black tar heroin and Opana use are on the rise.
Xanax use is particularly increasing with young people. The average age of first time drug use overall among children is age 11.
"Kids are telling us now, ‘Why would I take a drink so mom or dad can smell it on me when I get home when I can snort a pill and then I just wait until I am OK,’" Kelly added.
"We’re concerned because our communities are dying. Prescription drug abuse has far surpassed any epidemic with crack cocaine or heroin. Prescription drug abuse has more than doubled where we have ever been."
Whitley County UNITE Coalition Co-Chair Adam Sulfridge noted that during a six-month period in 2011 over 50 percent of the Whitley County overdose deaths involved either Hydrocodone or Oxycodone in their system.
Sulfridge added that in 2010, 69 tons of pure Oxycodone and 42 tons of pure Hydrocodone were dispensed in America.
"80 percent of worldwide prescription pain killers are consumed by America yet we are 4.6 percent of the world’s population,"
Sulfridge added. "We can’t tolerate that. I really hope people realize that out of 36,000 people in this county, 3.8 of them are dying of drugs per month."
Croley said that the drug levels come back in one of three ranges when they are measured in the bloodstream.
Therapeutic is the level a doctor recommends. Toxic is the level that could harm the body and lethal is a level of the drug, which has been known to cause death.
An overdose happens when people put more of a drug into their bodies than they can metabolize correctly causing the body to go into an agitated state, Croley said.
"What causes someone to overdose? Is it one pill? No, it’s not one pill. Is it the first time someone takes a pill? Normally, it’s not," Croley said. "The reason people are overdosing is because they don’t ever get to the high that they got to the first time."
Then they start taking multiple pills and medications.
"When they are taking multiple medications, they don’t understand what they are doing to their body and to their system," he added. "There are so many people out there that actually overdose and are so close to death that they don’t realize it."
Many times people have multiple drugs in their system when they overdose. One time Croley had someone with six different types of medications in their system.
Not all drug use bad
Kelly, who has a brother with stage four cancer, said UNITE’s goal isn’t to keep pain medication out of the hands of people that legitimately need it.
Croley agreed that pain medications aren’t bad when put into the hands of people, who really need them, but these typically aren’t the people Croley is seeing in cases of fatal overdoses.
Pill mills are part of the problem putting pain medications in the hands of people, who don’t need them for pain but instead are using them to get high or sell for a profit, he noted.
"We have found that there are many pharmaceutical companies that don’t want better procedures cracking down on these drugs," Kelly added. "They are still sponsoring studies that say we under treat pain in this country."
Croley said he thinks there is a strong correlation between drug usage and the employment rate.
Kelly noted the economic desolation and desperation is one aspect but that in many areas perhaps a bigger problem is that drug use has become a large part of the culture.
Kelly said one friend, who she grew up with, had all three of her sons affected by drug use. One son died, another went to treatment and has since left Pike County, and the other is still struggling. The mother never used drugs in her life.
Kelly said she has a niece by marriage, whose mother died of an overdose, her aunt committed suicide, and both of her brothers have drug addiction issues.
"She told me when her son uses, she is going to get him help early and not wait until he is desperate," Kelly said. "She expects my great nephew to use because he is growing up in that community.
"This is what we have to wrap our minds around that is who we have to reach out to. She has seen so much death and devastation that she expects more of it."
Croley said that the answer to the problem starts with education.