Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Prescription for Trouble: Painkiller Abuse Plagues Florida

Daytona Beach News-Journal

DAYTONA BEACH -- The headlines scream more frequently now.

A mother addicted to prescription pain pills falls asleep while her son drowns in a bathtub. A group high on Xanax beat a man to death for money. An appliance repairman is arrested twice for stealing pain pills when he was supposed to be fixing appliances.

"This is the most serious problem facing law enforcement at this time," Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson said during a recent interview. "It's more serious than crack cocaine."

Fed by a society more medicated in general than ever before, and a system that doesn't keep track as it might on where powerful heroin-like drugs are going, the problem of prescription-drug abuse is growing.

The damage to families is clear.

According to state Health Department statistics, more than nine people die of prescription-drug overdoses each week statewide.

Florida has been at the forefront of the debate over prescription drug abuse because it has been one of only a few states that don't monitor how many prescription pills are sold.

A law passed last year could address the problem of "doctor shopping" by limiting the amount of pills that can be distributed to patients in a set time period.

Other pending legislation is aimed at preventing convicted felons from distributing pills and increasing access to patient records by the state Health Department.

Circuit Judge Joseph Will, who runs the local drug court and hears felony court cases in his Daytona Beach courtroom, said many adults start taking the drugs -- opioids like Valium, Xanax, Loritab and OxyContin -- for pain as prescribed.

"They think they still have the pain, but the pain stopped years ago," Will said. "Pretty soon, they're taking the pills just to stay normal, to be able to function."

Instead of the cocaine and heroin addiction treatment problems of years past, the vast majority of people who are enrolled in drug court these days are addicted to a prescription drug, Will said.

"Like everywhere, there are doctors in our community who over-prescribe these medications," Will said. "It doesn't take long to get hooked."

Part of the problem, he said, is that we live in a society of instant gratification. "We don't want to feel lousy."

"The thing that frustrates me is these are legal drugs being approved by the FDA and manufactured by drug companies," Will said. "The manufacturers and the FDA should be tracing where these pills are going. They ship them out in boxcars. Somebody should be accountable for how many they sell and which doctors are prescribing."

One of the most publicized local cases of prescription drug abuse was that of Crystal Giachetti, who put her 4-month-old baby son in the bath, injected a dose of Xanax between her toes, and fell asleep. Her son, Trenton, died April 6, 2009.

"When she wasn't high, she was the same old Crystal," Giachetti's cousin, Theresa Culver said. "But that was very seldom."

Giachetti, 31, who lived in a mobile home near Ormond Beach, pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter of a child last month in exchange for a 14-year sentence. Her abuse of Dilaudin, Xanax and Soma began a few years earlier, when she broke her back and started heavy use of prescription pills.

"She'd say, I need these drugs for my back," Culver said.

Authorities say that deaths, robberies and burglaries all highlight the intersection of powerful narcotics that are intended to be used under the supervision of a doctor and stupid things "stupefied" people do. That and the lengths addicted people will go to in order to get more drugs.

"It's off the chart," Daytona Beach Police Chief Mike Chitwood said Friday of the number of crimes that start with illegally obtained pills. "This is the new crack cocaine for this decade."

James Earl Mason was trying to be friendly when he offered prescription Xanax to a group of drifters he met at a beachside motel in Daytona Beach. Within hours of meeting Juanita Liebman, Jason Bowman and William McMinn, the three were stomping him to death on the floor.

"I can't fathom any rational explanation for why this occurred," Circuit Judge James Clayton said after he sentenced the second of two of the killers to life in prison earlier this month.

Bryan Langford, 38, was high on a mixture of alcohol, marijuana, morphine and oxycodone when he went on a rampage that ended the lives of his girlfriend, her son and himself. He was in serious need of drug detox and aloholics anonymous.

Langford also shot an Orange City police officer who was called to check on his well-being March 25, 2009. Officer Sherif El-Shami lost his eye in the shooting. As SWAT officers surrounded Langford, he put a .357-caliber revolver under his chin and pulled the trigger.

Experts say prescription drug problems have driven otherwise law-abiding people to commit criminal acts. Last year, Dr. Jerrold Ecklind, 38, was stopped by Daytona Beach police with his shoes on the wrong feet.

Ecklind, who had morphine in his car, and needed Xanax addiction treatment, was later accused of kidnapping. A jury acquitted him of that charge, but found he improperly displayed a weapon. Ecklind was ordered to enter a drug treatment center.

Judge Will said prescription drug problems can take longer to treat because for the abuser, the intended use gets in the way of understanding there is a problem.

"The cocaine addict says "I'm worthless, I'm scum," he said. "The opiate user says, "I'm better, I'm different, I just take pills because of pain."

To get help for these addicts, Will said, there must be an understanding that the substance abuse is not needed. "It's a matter of managing your life so you're comfortable without the stuff you put up your nose or up your arm."

With pill addiction, "it takes longer to get into that mind frame."

After the drug addiction grabbed hold of Crystal Giachetti, she didn't care about anything else, her cousin said.

When they told her she needed to stop taking pills and go for prescription drug treatment, Giachetti would say, "I know."

"One time we were at my mom's, the baby was just born, and Crystal went into the bathroom," Culver said. "She came out and she couldn't walk. She was instantly high. With the pills, it was like she didn't want the baby."


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