State opioid addiction on the rise

Nick Bohannon/The News

Story by Destinee Marking, Staff writer 

Kentucky has fallen victim to the deadly opioid addiction epidemic, and college students are no exception to this nation-wide rampant.

According to National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioids include prescription pain killers and illegal drugs like heroin and fentanyl.

“These drugs are chemically related and interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the body and brain,” according to NIDA. “Opioid pain relievers are generally safe when taken for a short time and as prescribed by a doctor, but because they produce euphoria in addition to pain relief, they can be misused.”

A survey conducted by Q Market Research of Minnesota in 2015, showed 16 percent of college-age youth reported using pain pills not prescribed to them. Of the respondents, 32.7 percent said this is because prescription pain killers are “easy” to obtain.

Ben Chandler, president and CEO of Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, said it is evident Kentucky is in the epicenter of this crisis.

Kentucky had 1,400 overdose-related deaths in 2016, and Chandler believes this number is lower than the actual figure.

“Most of us think that is a conservative figure,” Chandler said. “We think there are a lot of deaths that were due to opioid usage, but weren’t reported as opioid deaths in coroner reports because families didn’t want it reported.”

Looking back on this problem, Chandler said it began in the 1990s. He said in the mid-90s, opium-based drugs started being prescribed to patients to ease pain. Before then, these drugs were not prescribed unless patients were terminally ill.

“Opioids are tremendous pain killers, but they are incredibly addictive,” Chandler said. “In fact, you can get addicted within three to five days.”

Chandler said opioid dependency is one of the most difficult addictions to overcome.

“The problem is most of the solutions people come up with have to do with treatment, and there are two problems connected with treatment,” Chandler said. “One is treatment is not prevention. It’s after the fact, so it doesn’t do anything for preventing the use of opioids in the first place. The second thing is it’s tremendously expensive.”

Prevention is a key to fighting the opioid epidemic. Both the Murray Police Department and the Calloway County Sheriff’s office offer a disposal program for prescription drugs.

“The Sheriff’s Office handles the bulk of it with an actual secure drop off bin,” said Sergeant Brant Shutt with the Murray Police Department.

The program allows people to drop off unused prescriptions at various drop off locations around the city and county.

“It helps to prevent accidental use by family members and also helps to prevent intentional use by addicts,” said Narcotics Investigator Michael Weatherford with the Murray Police Department.

The disposal program is not just limited to prescription pills. There are also two drop off locations for used needles and syringes: the emergency room at Murray-Calloway County Hospital and the Murray North Fire Station.

The reason people are turning toward illegal drugs like heroin, Chandler said, is because people who are addicted cannot always continue to obtain prescription drugs.

“Because of the way prescription drugs were misused during the 1990s and early 2000s, in essence, what we did was we created a market for dealers of heroin and fentanyl,” Chandler said.

The misuse of these drugs is widespread. Chandler said all demographics have individuals becoming addicted to and abusing opioids.

Abigail Cox, coordinator for Women’s Center and educational programming, said reasons individual college students start misusing substances vary.

“It is common for substances to be used in order to cope with stress or other emotional distress, however, recreational use of substances is also very common among college students,” Cox said.

While the opioid epidemic sweeps the Commonwealth and the nation, it is not the main drug of choice in Murray.

Weatherford said the most devastating drug to families in Murray is methamphetamine.

“I’ve seen a lot more college students using it,” Weatherford said. “It keeps them awake, and it’s cheaper than the pills (opioids).”

Methamphetamine, while on the increase on campus, is not the drug of choice for Murray State students. Weatherford said marijuana is the most prevalent drug among students.

“I can probably go out here (in a campus parking lot), stop five cars and I’ll find weed in four of them,” Weatherford said. “People say it is not a gateway drug; it is. I have seen it firsthand. They start smoking weed, went to heroin and meth.”

According to the Murray State University Student Life Alcohol and Other Drug Policy, the university is committed to educating students and preventing them from general substance abuse.

“A number of offices have combined to make available prevention and education materials for alcohol and other drug use to Murray State students,” according to the policy. “In addition to the annual distribution of our policies regarding alcohol and other drugs, all new students under the age of 25 are required to complete an online alcohol education program during their first semester at Murray State.”

While there is no substance abuse counseling available on campus, the policy lists Four Rivers Behavioral Health, Recovery Works, West Kentucky Drug and Alcohol Services and Drug Information Services for Kentucky as resources in the region.