Death is wake up-call for drug abuse

Rob McKenna Washington State Attorney General - Courtesy photo
Rob McKenna Washington State Attorney General
— image credit: Courtesy photo

In December, actress Britney Murphy was found dead in her Los Angeles home. Authorities reported that the 32 year-old died of “natural causes.”

But 32-year-olds don’t usually die of natural causes. An autopsy now reveals that Murphy experienced “multiple drug intoxication” from prescription drugs. This month, her death was reclassified as accidental.

Unfortunately, Murphy’s prescription drug-related death was far from an isolated incident. In 2008, “Dark Knight” star Heath Ledger was killed by an accidental overdose of six kinds of prescription drugs. Las Vegas performer Danny Gans died the following year after taking a high dose of hydromorphone, a prescription painkiller.

Athletes struggle with these medications, too. In 2009, former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf faced prescription-drug related charges, accused of burglarizing a home to obtain the powerful painkiller Hydrocodone. Leaf checked into rehab last year.

Celebrities and sports stars are hardly alone in facing the consequences of prescription drug abuse. In my travels around the state, I’ve spoken with many parents who lost children to the epidemic. One told me about a son who became hooked on prescription pain pills, moved on to heroin and died from an overdose. Another couple told me about their teen, a popular athlete, who died after combining prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

In Washington state, drug overdoses have overtaken car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death. Prescription drug overdoses now kill more people in our state than heroin, cocaine and meth combined.

How did we get here?

The availability of innovative painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin offer incredible relief from chronic or surgery-related pain. Most of us can take these medications safely. When taken correctly, these pills don’t make you feel intoxicated. But drug abusers have figured out that certain pills may be crushed, smoked or snorted in order to deliver a potent, addicting – and potentially lethal – high.

This threat is hidden because prescription drugs are widely seen as safe. Unlike meth or heroin, they come from a pharmacy. They are FDA and doctor-approved. But prescription pain pills are deadly when overdosed or combined with other drugs.

The threat these drugs pose to teens is particularly sobering. By nature, adolescents feel invincible. Failing to understand the threat, teens mix prescription painkillers at “pharming” parties, consuming them in a dangerous game of experimentation. The pills are obtained from parents’ medicine cabinets.

Don’t think your kid could be at risk? Think again. State government research shows that almost 10 percent of 10th graders and 12 percent of 12th graders report using prescription pain medications to get high. Remember, a single episode can be deadly.

• Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna will speak at the Youth Prescription Drug Abuse Community Education Forum, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 24, at Mount Si High School. The forum’s organizers ask adults to check, lock and dispose of prescription drugs. For more information, call (425) 831-3404 or email foundation@snoqualmiehospital.org.

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