Millstone Alliance address heroin and opioid epidemic

Sean Brady - Photographer

I have been a volunteer with the Millstone Township Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse for eight years. As volunteers, members of the alliance try to educate the community about the dangers of alcohol and other drugs. Our main goal is to provide prevention programs and activities in the community. We post articles in the township newsletter and on the township website, host town meetings, presentations and community events, and deliver prevention programs and services for youth from elementary school through high school.

Over the last several years, many more families have come forward at county meetings and talked about the experience of losing a child or a family member to addiction and accidental overdose from prescription painkillers and heroin. These parents want to help other families not experience the pain of losing a child or a family member to addiction.

We all hear about the heroin and opioid epidemic in the headlines on a daily basis, but what is the driving force behind this epidemic of heroin and opioid abuse here in Millstone and in many other communities across the nation?  Many times the answer is as close as your medicine cabinet.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common opioids involved in prescription overdose deaths include Hydrocodone (Vicodin), Oxycodone (Oxycontin), Oxymorphone (Opana), and Methadone. Opioids can be used to treat moderate to severe pain.

In November, I had the opportunity to attend a brunch in Teaneck for families that have been touched by opiate abuse. The main speaker was Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the co-founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP). Dr. Kolodny is one of the nation’s leading experts on prescription opioids and the heroin crisis.

Dr. Kolodny noted that the molecular structure of heroin and Oxycodone (brand name Oxycontin, Percodan, Percocet) are almost identical. Oxycodone and other legally prescribed opioids mimic the effects of heroin on the body and mind. Most people who were prescribed an opioid for chronic pain were under the impression it was safe because they went to a doctor and received a prescription. However, they did not know that for long-term therapy, opioid use is highly addictive.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, the fastest growing age groups now being treated for opioid addiction are people ages 50 to 59. Young adults ages 18 to 25 were more likely to have used heroin in the past year than were adolescents and adults age 26 or older.

Dr. Kolodny pointed out that prior to 1996, opioids were used for cancer and end-of-life situations to treat acute pain. Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxycontin, implemented an aggressive marketing campaign in 1996 to educate hospitals, doctors, dentists and pain specialists to try Oxycontin’s new 12-hour release pill to treat patients with chronic pain. As a result, the practice of prescribing opioids for chronic pain flourished in the United States. As the prescribing of opioids increased, addiction increased, as well as accidental overdose.

According to the CDC, 47,055 drug overdoses occurred in the United States in 2014. Heroin related deaths jumped 26 percent from 2013 to 2014.

The strongest risk factor for heroin addiction is addiction to prescription opioid painkillers. Heroin meets the demand for younger people who cannot get their hands on prescription painkillers.

Why are people dying from heroin and prescription painkillers? People become addicted and dependent as they increase the dosage to get the same effect and this often leads to accidental overdose or death. Higher doses can slow a person’s breathing to the point that it stops. Also at risk is the person who takes medications prescribed for someone else, or the person who combines heroin and prescription medications and mixes these drugs with alcohol or other over the counter medications.

What can we do to protect our children and family from opioid abuse?

First and foremost, prevent it. Secure all medications in your home. Talk to your doctor about over the counter medications that may be helpful instead. Young children and teens are at a higher risk for addiction. The early use of alcohol and drugs is far more likely to cause a dependency to develop.

Opioids for short-term therapy may be the best answer to treat acute pain, but know the adverse affects of it long term.

For more information about this topic and other topics related to substance abuse, consider joining the Millstone Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse. The alliance may be reached by sending an email to [email protected]

Catherine Plutino, LSW, is a Millstone Alliance Volunteer in Millstone Township.