NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Abuse of prescription opioids, like hydrocodone, has been widespread in Tennessee over the past ten years.
While it continues be problem state-wide, officials have taken steps to curb the problem.
“We’ve done a really good job in the state of Tennessee with our General Assembly and Governor Haslam in the tools we have been given to combat prescription opioid overuse,” said Dr. Stephen Loyd, Medical Director of Tennessee’s Division of Substance Abuse Services.
The state’s efforts are working, and pain pill abuse is beginning to decline, albeit slowly.
However, there has been an unattended consequence.
As prescription pain pills have become harder to attain, addicts have turned to another type of opioid: heroin.
The latest numbers from the Department of Mental Health show how rapidly Tennesseans are turning to heroin.
In 2013, the number of patients seeking treatment from state facilities for heroin abuse was 454. By 2015, that number had jumped to 839.
“We would hope that people would then go into treatment, if they’re not able to get prescription opioids, but what we find is a lot of them turn to heroin because it’s more available,” said Dr. Wesley Geminn, Pharm.D., the Chief Pharmacist for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
Dr. Loyd says not only is heroin easier to get, it is also cheaper.
“If you think about what the street value is of prescription pills right now in Tennessee, in general, you can go about a dollar a milligram. So, if you’re a 200-milligram-a-day pill habit, that’s going to be 200 bucks a day.”
He says the equivalent amount of that in heroin would only be $40.
While it may be cheaper, Dr. Loyd says using heroin is significantly more risky than prescription pills.
Not only is it more potent, but he says it is also often laced with other substances.
“You need a certain amount to get the feeling you’re looking for, but the amount that will kill you is just barely [that much more] and that makes it very dangerous.”
Both Dr. Geminn and Dr. Loyd say heroin laced with Fentanyl is on the rise in Tennessee. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, can be 100 times stronger than pain pills, making an inadvertent fatal overdose much more likely.
Both men say raising awareness about addiction and getting Tennesseans into treatment that works will be the key to reducing the current trend towards heroin use.
“You have to give them access to treatment that works, and that’s when we’ll start to turn the overdose numbers around,” said Dr. Loyd.