Patients in La Plata and Montezuma counties received about 16 million prescription pain pills from 2006 through 2012, a volume of medication that likely contributed to opioid addictions and could still tempt residents.
In Montezuma County, about 7 million pills went to residents, enough for each person to take 40 pills per year, according to data recently released by The Washington Post. The newspaper released the numbers of oxycodone and hydrocodone pills distributed in each county and the companies that shipped and sold them.
In La Plata County, about 9 million pills were distributed over the seven years, enough for each person to take 25 pills per year, the data show.
It’s likely many of those pills are still in residents’ cabinets, where they could contribute to development of addiction, said Robert Valuck, executive director of the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention. About 17% of opioid addicts got hooked using their own leftover medication, he said.
Valuck advises residents to avoid misusing painkillers by disposing of any that do not have an active prescription.
“Anything you are not currently taking, get rid of it,” he said.
Opioids have contributed to a rising number of drug overdoses in the state since 2000, when 351 residents died by overdose, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. In 2018, 974 residents died by overdose, a decline from 2017, when 1,012 died by a drug overdose, the agency said.
The decline is positive but is the second-highest number of drug overdose deaths the state has ever seen, Valuck said.
To help prevent deaths, the consortium is focused on increasing access to treatment, encouraging residents to turn in prescription medication and encouraging more people to carry naloxone, a medication used to reverse overdoses.
Naloxone, also known as Narcan, can be purchased at any pharmacy in Colorado without a prescription, he said, and can help prevent a fatal overdose.
“Virtually, all of the overdoses are preventable,” Valuck said.
In La Plata County, opioid prescriptions have declined since about 2012, said Stephanie Clement, chief nursing officer with Mercy Regional Medical Center. She attributed the decline to physicians’ heightened awareness about the opioid epidemic.
She blamed the seven-year surge of opioid distribution on a mistaken philosophy about pain management.
“There was a push not just to make pain tolerable for patients, but to eliminate it, if you will,” she said.
To further help prevent opioid addiction in Colorado, the state passed a law last year that limits opioid doses to a seven-day supply. The law allows health care providers to prescribe additional painkillers to patients with chronic pain or cancer or under palliative or hospice care.
While the state tackles opioid deaths in a myriad ways, Valuck expects bringing down the number of deaths statewide will require five to 10 years.
Still, the increase in methamphetamine overdoses, could make addressing addiction statewide harder, Valuck said.
Opioid users can seek medication-assisted treatment at clinics to ease their symptoms, he said. But methamphetamine users don’t have treatment options, he said.
Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin said he has observed the uptick in meth use and an increase in crimes related to drugs in general.
“We are seeing more and more methamphetamine and heroin than we have in the past,” he said.
He wants inpatient or residential treatment options for residents struggling with drugs and alcohol.
“We have to take this seriously and really put the money into it,” he said.
Next year, more residents in Southwest Colorado will be able to seek inpatient and residential treatment because Medicaid is expected to cover it for the first time, Valuck said.
Medicaid would fill the single biggest need for addiction treatment coverage in the state, he said.