COLUMBUS, Ind. (AP) - Columbus Police Detective Chris Couch and drug investigator Sgt. Jay Frederick don't shock easily.
They've seen the extreme lengths that people who abuse prescription drugs will go to get high on pills swiped from a relative's medicine cabinet or strong painkillers pilfered from a hospital pharmacy.
Consider this near-death episode from the police department's case files:
A few weeks ago, two officers revived a man who had used a hot iron to force the quickened release into his body of a mega-dose of narcotics from a stolen Fentanyl patch. The powerful time-release drug — used by doctors to control pain in terminally ill cancer patients — is considered 80 times more potent than morphine, police say.
When used in a medically appropriate way, the drug releases into a patient's body over 72 hours, working directly on the brain to reduce pain. But pressing an iron or electric heating pad to the gel-filled patch can boost the absorption rate in someone looking for a shorter-term, numbing rush akin to heroin.
"The officers basically saved the man's life by giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation," Couch told The Republic . "He had taken so much of the drug that his breathing and central nervous system were shutting down."
Couch said the drug user wasn't appreciative, though.
"He was so out of it that he refused to believe the officers had saved his life. He was sure he knew more about the drug than they did."
Columbus Police Chief Jason Maddix and his officers acknowledge that the fight against drug abuse — especially the illicit use of prescription drugs — might never be fully won.
But Maddix, Couch and Frederick insist that educational efforts and greater cooperation taking place among police agencies, doctors, hospitals and other medical professionals can save lives and lead to more arrests of street dealers peddling painkillers for rates ranging from $4 to $6 per pill.
Frederick said various hydrocodone products — generics or brand names such as Vicodin or Lortab — are prescription painkillers found to be most popular for street-corner sales.
"Needless to say, our position is there's way too much hydrocodone on the street, and it's contributing to increased drug addiction, thus increased crime as people seek to feed their addictions," he said.
Other prescription drugs frequently available in Columbus and nationally include Opana, Klonopin, Xanax, Oxycodone and Suboxone strips or "subbies," as they're known for short. These strips, which contain medications that produce a mild euphoria, generally are used to wean drug addicts off harder drugs, but illicit sales can bring $25 per strip, Frederick said.
Columbus police point to four recent initiatives as their best new weapons to slow the tide of prescription drug theft and abuse.
The Indiana Scheduled Prescription Electronic Collection and Tracking program, also known as INSPECT: The secure online database includes reports showing the patients, doctors and drug amounts prescribed by physicians in various states. Registered users, mainly medical professionals and police under certain circumstances, can check whether a patient is getting unusual volumes of prescription painkillers from multiple doctors and likely faking or abusing prescriptions.
Workshops: Couch and Frederick conduct periodic workshops with doctors, nurses, nursing homes and pharmacy managers to share information about ongoing investigations and trends in street sales of drugs. Part of the idea is to encourage further conversations among medical professionals about how to prevent internal theft and how to better screen prospective employees so they don't job-hop and steal prescription drugs from other unsuspecting institutions.
Fresh appointment: Couch was named last year as the Columbus Police Department's full-time drug diversion investigator, a role that puts him in daily contact with the medical community as well as other local and state police agencies to track the illegal trade of prescription medicines.
Theft of Medication Affidavit: Columbus police have started using an affidavit system to make it tougher for people to lie about prescription medications being stolen from their homes or businesses. Such fraud leads to painkillers becoming available for street sale in huge volumes, police say, as drug abusers trick doctors — or find cooperative ones — to write replacement prescriptions for the pills reported as stolen.
In the past, Couch said, Columbus police used to fill out an incident report whenever someone reported a theft of medicine in small quantities. If that person was up to no good, they'd take the report to a willing doctor and get a bogus refill.
"The current system requires a complainant to agree to cooperate with a police investigation and sign an affidavit that lists specific details about the missing medication," Couch said. "Reports of theft also must be taken in person now; they can't be taken over the phone."
The upshot of the closer scrutiny is that people who intended
to make up stories about the theft of small amounts of prescription drugs often drop the idea when they learn of the extra red tape they have to comply with, Couch said.
"It's not unusual for someone to promise to come in and fill out the affidavit, only to have them call back a day or two later and say: 'Never mind. I found that medicine around the house. It's not missing. Forget about it.'"
Columbus police say their yearly count of medication theft reports shows that incidents declined by 42 percent in 2012 compared to the previous year, an indication many earlier incidents were likely bogus and that the new, stricter system is working to curb abuse.
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