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Prescription Drug Deaths in Michigan

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The number of prescription drug deaths in Michigan is on the rise. As prescription drugs become increasingly popular to treat a host of maladies such as anxiety, pain, and hyperactivity, the number of people addicted to and dying from overdoses is becoming more common. In fact, according to recent statistics from a federal registry, the number of Michiganders dying from prescription drug-related deaths is higher than the total number dying from heroine and cocaine abuse combined.

Health officials attribute the increase in prescription drug-related deaths to ease of access to prescription pills. Take Kayla Westerman, for example, who started at age 13 when her friend introduced her to the painkiller Vicodin. By high school, Westerman added Oxycontin to her habit. Eventually, her habit grew so expensive that she switched over to heroine at 15–just two years after taking her first prescription painkiller. Sadly, health officials say the transition from prescription painkillers to street drugs is common–and it’s more prevalent for young people under the age of 25. Westerman finally received help through a Livingston County drug-diversion program, recently completed a 37-day sentence, and is working at turning her life around.

But illegal sources such as family and friends aren’t the only places that younger people and older adults gain access to prescription drugs. According to health officials and others, the uptick in prescription drug deaths is closely related to the skyrocketing rates of prescriptions written by dentists and doctors. For example, a dentist may prescribe 20 painkillers after oral surgery when four or five might work, says Carol Boyd, a nurse and University of Michigan researcher on teen substance abuse. According to Boyd, the problem is that substance abuse is so "far off the radar" for dentists and oral surgeons. To help stem the problem, Michigan has implemented a statewide system that tracks the prescription of controlled drugs. The monitoring system tracks any prescriptions written for more than two days of use outside of a nursing home, hospital, or in-patient unit and closely follows doctors and pharmacies identified as frequent-prescribers. Others aren’t so sure that the monitoring system is the answer to the growing problem and instead are calling on prescription drug companies to become more accountable.