Opiate use has become Douglas County’s fastest-growing drug problem, fueled by an increase in availability of pain pills and a decrease in home-grown methamphetamine labs, according to health professionals and law enforcement officials.
Once readily available, the ingredients for methamphetamine are now kept behind pharmacy counters. At the same time, the use of opiates has risen, especially among younger drug users.
Police, doctors and counselors report that some people who become hooked on pain-killing drugs such as Vicodin and Oxycontin go on to search out a cheaper alternative — heroin.
Roseburg pediatrician Bob Dannenhoffer said doctors were encouraged in the early 2000s to prescribe narcotics to treat pain.
“The use of narcotics really went up, and we’re now paying the penalty for that,” Dannenhoffer said.
He said there is good reason for the prevalence of addiction to pain medications.
“Pain is one of the really most negative things out there. Getting rid of pain is a good thing. Then there’s a general feeling of euphoria that comes with it. People get that euphoric feeling and are looking to get it back,” he said.
The longer patients use narcotics to dull the pain, the higher the risk they will become dependent and that quitting painkillers will cause withdrawal symptoms.
Eventually, the patient may begin taking higher and higher doses to get the same effect. Withdrawal can be miserable for addicts, who may vomit and feel uncomfortable in their own skin, Dannenhoffer said.
“All of these things make opiates some of the easiest drugs to get addicted to and the hardest addictions to break,” Dannenhoffer said.
Police say that many opiate users navigate life well enough that they go undetected until their problem is severe.
“Many of them can function. They can hold down a job. They just get that maintenance high in the morning, whether it’s pills or a shot of heroin,” Douglas County sheriff’s Detective Josh Sullivan said. “You wouldn’t be able to spot them quickly.”
The symptoms of opiate use and withdrawal are very different from those of methamphetamine.
“With methamphetamine, they’re more aggressive when they’re high. With heroin, they’re more aggressive when they’re jonesing for more,” said Roseburg police Lt. Pat Moore, supervisor of the Douglas Interagency Narcotics Team.
Moore said that when heroin addicts are high, they often display no concern for their own well-being or the well-being of others. Parents may fail to bond with their children and are much more likely to neglect their kids than abuse them, he said.
Dannenhoffer said one of the most disturbing effects of opiates is seen in the newborns of addicted mothers. The infants are born addicted to the drug.
“The babies come out, and they are just miserable. They’re crying, screaming, they have terrible diarrhea. They just can’t get comfortable. They’re yawning like crazy,” Dannenhoffer said. It can take as long as two months for babies to recover from the addiction.
Police say the typical opiate addict is younger than the typical methamphetamine user.
“They are going to be young, in their 20s and a lot of them start it with opiate-based pills,” Sullivan said.
The experts point to several signs that might indicate a person is using opiates.
Sudden changes in mood or behavior should raise red flags, as should medicines missing from the cabinet. Users may stash away aluminum foil, which is used in melting down pills for a faster hit.
Dannenhoffer said there are some physical symptoms, too.
“While taking it, people are slow and sleepy. They have tiny little pupils. When they’re withdrawing, they come in with big wide pupils and just looking terrible,” Dannenhoffer said.
One solution to opiate addiction is taking drugs such as methadone or buprenophine, which help detoxify addicts by providing some of the same effects as opiates. Neither is administered in an inpatient facility in Douglas County, though patients can be referred to Eugene or Portland for residential treatment.
John Gardin, a clinical psychologist and director of training and research for ADAPT, said the agency’s patients undergo therapy to figure out why they are addicted to drugs or alcohol.
He explained the premise is that people develop drug abuse problems because they are trying to fill a need, such as reducing pain or relieving social awkwardness. Once the need can be identified, counselors work with patients to find healthier ways to meet their needs.
“We address the original reason they began using alcohol and drugs and replace it with a substitute that is acceptable in their community,” he said.
Gardin said research shows the program works for 70 percent of the people who remain committed to it, but many people don’t. Between 40 percent and 60 percent relapse, a rate that is roughly the same as for lifestyle-changing programs for other chronic diseases such as diabetes.
“It’s not that addiction is so difficult to treat, it’s that change is so difficult to make,” Gardin said. “When we get frustrated with people who don’t seem to be able to change their addictions, we need to remember change is hard on a good day. People who come into treatment are not coming in on a good day.”
David Stevens, owner of Gordon’s Pharmacy in Canyonville, said he has seen a dramatic increase in patients seeking extra pain pills — often the first sign that they have become addicted to opiates.
“I think it’s a pretty serious problem. It’s big and it’s way too big,” he said.
Stevens said red flags pharmacists should heed are patients paying cash and seeking early refills. He said pharmacists and doctors can make use of the Oregon Prescription Drug Monitoring Program to discover how often patients have obtained their drugs.
Stevens also hopes county residents will take advantage of drop sites at police departments to dispose of unwanted drugs before they end up in the wrong hands. Pharmacies cannot legally take back the drugs, he said.
“Most of the drugs out there on the street that teenagers have were probably in Grandma’s cabinet or Mom and Dad’s,” he said.
• You can reach reporter Carisa Cegavske at 541-957-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.