The abuse of prescription painkillers is a growing worry in Minnesota – so much so that more than 1,000 people from law enforcement, medicine, politics and the legal community gathered at a conference Tuesday devoted to the topic.
It's no longer illegal drugs like heroin or cocaine that cause the most drug overdose deaths. It's prescription painkillers, said Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, the Star Tribune reports.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 16,000 people died of prescription painkiller overdoses in 2010 - and the number keeps growing.
Several speakers told the group of their own personal experiences being addicted to painkillers, most notably Minnesota native Dick Beardsley, a highly regarded marathon runner and motivational speaker.
Beardsley had a series of serious accidents in the late 1980s and early '90s which required several surgeries. And his use of prescription painkillers afterward turned into a nightmare addiction, according to WCCO.
He told the crowd how easily he became hooked on pain pills. He began shopping for doctors and in 1996, he said he forged prescriptions to get more pills.
At one point, he said, he was taking more than 200 pain pills a day.
Beardsley was arrested in 1996 for forging prescriptions, was placed on five years' probation and went through intensive treatment. He's been sober for 19 years, he said.
“People don’t like to talk about this kind of addiction, but we’ve got to get it out in the open," he said to the crowd, according to the Star Tribune.
That was one of the main messages of the day – that addiction to prescription painkillers is much more common than most people believe and it can happen in any household.
An anecdote shared by Gov. Mark Dayton illustrated the issue. He said after he underwent a dental procedure he was given a prescription for 30 painkillers. But he only needed a few of them, and disposed of the rest, according to the Star Tribune.
But in many households, the patient could keep taking those pills and develop an addiction, or another family member could get access to them and become hooked, or sell them to others.
"These narcotic painkillers are often overprescribed, leading to abuse, addiction and often even death," Jesson told the audience, according to MPR News. "We need to start with prevention, to prescribing to treatment and support for recovery."
Jesson's agency is taking steps to help limit the number of prescription pills that get out into the public, and doing some research to determine whether opioid painkillers are being prescribed effectively to manage pain, MPR News notes.
Others recommended a system so patients who are using painkillers could be more closely monitored, and more widespread use of alternative pain management techniques such as acupuncture, massage, exercise and nutrition.