I-Team: Prescription drug abuse an epidemic

April 25, 2013

Prescription drug abuse is causing overdoses and turning regular people into criminals.

Popping painkillers, becoming addicted and then taking extreme measures to get more pills. Prescription drug overdoses now outnumber those of heroin and cocaine combined.

The abuse by young and old is happening everywhere, in Chicago, the suburbs and the rural Midwest, taxing healthcare systems and law enforcement resources and wrecking lives.

David Reveles is a student at Elmhurst College. At age 14, the star wrestler began smoking marijuana and quickly moved on to prescription drugs.

"Six months after my first marijuana use I dabbled into other stuff I don't even remember what I was doing, whatever I could get my hands on," he said.

Reveles struggled through high school, in and out of nine treatment centers

Thanksgiving 2004, an 18-wheeler hit Cheryl Edwards' car. She fractured her neck and soon became addicted to prescription painkillers.

"You take pain pills for a length of time and when you go through withdrawals, that causes pain," she said. "Withdrawals cause pain. So, naturally you're going to think I'm in pain and I need a pain pill.

"When you are desperate like that and you need something, I looked at pills as my life line, I needed them. And I really expected everyone around me to understand that I had to have those to operate, to function."

Edwards says she continually put herself and her family at risk.

"Buying pills from a drug dealer that carried a 9-millimeter to tell everyone about it." She said.

She lost her home. Her marriage fell apart. And her son, Stephen, also became an addict.

It is a common story.

"We're in a culture where we believe taking a pill is the remedy for most things," said David Cohen, Hazelden Clinical Director.

"Much of it starts legitimately," said Jack Riley, special agent in charge of Chicago Field Division. "Where someone seeks medical care, has an injury, has surgery, and begins on that dark road down to addiction."

Riley is the head of the drug enforcement agency in Chicago where 20 percent of federal drug agents working in the Midwest work prescription drug investigations.

During the past year, there were 21 incidents of pharmacy and pain clinic employees suspected of stealing prescription drugs in Cook County; many others go unreported.

"We deal quite frequently with pharmacy robberies where they're breaking into pharmacies, going after a specific controlled substance," said Riley. "Oxycontin is one in general, that they know there is a strong need or market value to sell on the street."

It is so bad in New York that police plant GPS trackers in empty "bait bottles" at some pharmacies to track the thieves.

According to the national survey on drug use and health, more than 2.4 million Americans used prescription drugs illegally for the first time in 2010. A third were between the ages of 12 and 17.

"Their kids go into their parents' medicine cabinets and literally take whatever is there, and they take what they can," Cohen said. "And because they're not educated on addiction,their opportunities for overdose and respiratory failure are exorbitant."

"That scares the hell out of me quite frankly," said Riley. "We've seen that all of the way down into junior high and high school and clearly college and the source of that is usually medicine cabinets in their homes."

Authorities say some people are pilfering pills from open houses.

"Real estate agents being concerned, and they should be, about people posing as potential buyers, setting up an appointment to go into a house, to do nothing but go through the medicine cabinet to try to grab those drugs so they can put them on the street for profit," Riley said.

Edwards says she never stole pills to feed her addiction. She has been clean for three and a half years. She remarried her husband and her son, Stephen, is sober now, too.

Reveles says a conversation with his mom saved his life has kept him sober.

"My mom looked into my eyes, and she said, she said, the family is distancing ourselves from you because you don't have much time left, we will not die with you," he said.

Both say they share their experiences hoping to help others struggling with drug dependency.

"You have too much to lose. Get help. And you will be so glad that you did," said Edwards.

"I have been empowered, I have empowered and inspired myself," Reveles said. "The goal now is to go out and empower everyone else, so they can do what I did."

Federal authorities are concerned the Mexican drug cartels will begin producing prescription drugs on their own, which would give street gangs here in Chicago a supply of another illicit drug to sell on the streets. That is something the DEA says it is working hard to prevent.

Related Links

National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day

Hazelden Chicago addiction treatment center

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health


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