Opioid abuse a big problem for Utah

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SALT LAKE CITY — Chances are you or someone you know is being affected by prescription drug abuse. Hundreds of Utahns die each year from prescription drug overdose, and some of them are children who are too young to even know what they're getting into.

Prescription pain medications are the most frequently abused substances in the state. And it's the addicting power of opioids, found in prescriptions like OxyContin and Lortab that takes even the youngest users down a dark and sometimes unforgiving path.

Angela Watson cherishes the mementos and memories of her son Connor. He died last year of a prescription drug overdose. He was 13.

Connor discovered oxycodone while playing at a friend's house. It was left on a counter with other medications. The night he died, he texted a friend saying he was taking a couple pills.

His mother says she'll never forget finding her son's lifeless body in bed.

"It's every mother's, every parent's worst nightmare," Watson said.

According to the 2009-2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 55 percent of people who have used prescription drugs for non-medical purposes got them from a friend or relative.

Watson believes had the oxycodone been locked up, her son would be alive today.

"I don't blame them. They didn't know, and Connor ultimately made the choice to take them," Watson said. "But I firmly believe that if we could do a better job of getting these out of our homes, that fewer and fewer people would die from (overdose)."

In 2010, 236 Utahns died as a result of an overdose of prescription opioid drugs like oxycodone, Lortab, Percocet and tramadol. Salt Lake City police detective Mike Hamideh sees the abuse of these drugs every day.

"We're seeing younger and younger people getting involved," Hamideh said. "I recall a case where someone in middle school had a prescription pill, an opioid pill, in a pen cap."

Hamideh's brother died of an prescription opioid overdose at the age of 29. He says, like a lot of people, he didn't see the signs.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think he was using prescription drugs," Hamideh said.

A 16-year police veteran, Hamideh says users of opioid drugs range from your typical soccer mom to your stereotypical criminal; and it's easy to miss the signs of abuse until it's too late.

"One of the biggest things you can do as a parent, or just a loved one, is be in touch and look for signs — just a dramatic change in behavior with your loved one," he said.

At Project Reality in Salt Lake, Dr. Joel Millard is trying to combat opioid addiction. He says prescription opioid drugs are leading younger users to heroin and meth faster than ever before.

"Kids seem to be getting into the heavier drugs that would have historically taken years to get there, and because they're kids and they don't have the thinking component of their brain," Millard said.

Like Millard, Angela Watson is trying to make others aware of the dangers of prescription opioids — especially youth. She says it's something people are afraid to talk about, and even more afraid to admit they have a problem with.

"I don't think people know — people don't know how dangerous they are and the risk of having them in their homes," Watson said.

In 2011, the state of Utah re-launched a program called "Use Only As Directed" to educate people about prescription drug abuse. One way to prevent an family members from getting ahold of your prescriptions, the program states, is to get rid of any unused medication. There are drop off bins all over the state.

For more tips, visit useonlya sdirected.org

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Shara Park


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