Contact: Len Kaye, (207) 581- 3483, Dr. Stephen Gressitt, (207) 568-7599, George Manlove (207) 581-3756
ORONO, Maine — When it comes to abuse or misuse of prescription drugs, usually OxyContin, Oxycodone or Percocet come to mind.
But a potentially more dangerous family of drugs, benzodiazepines, often causes more overdoses and serious accidents than people realize, according to a Maine-based consortium that is working to increase awareness about the abuse and misuse of benzodiazepine drugs.
Benzodiazepines, called “benzos” for short, include drugs like Ativan (generically called Lorazepam), Xanax (alprazolam) or Valium (diazepam), which are commonly prescribed for anxiety, stress and insomnia.
“Benzos have been around for so long as ‘mother’s little helpers,’ that people tend to forget the abuse that can take place and, with the elderly, they can be responsible for hip fractures,” says Bangor psychiatrist Dr. Stevan Gressitt. He is the founder of the Maine Benzodiazepine Study Group (MBSG), which is leading a consortium of agencies, individuals and organizations, including the UMaine Center on Aging, to raise public awareness of the abuse and misuse of benzodiazepines.
“They’ve been 40 years on the market, but we haven’t paid attention to their role in motor vehicle accidents or hip fracture incidents,” Gressitt says. “It’s not that it’s not been studied, but it’s sort of under the radar since OxyContin tends to get the headlines. Benzos as a family are a significant cause of death, as opposed to a single drug.”
The Center on Aging recently received a $25,000 grant to organize and coordinate a two-day, international conference on the topic in Bangor, with people coming from the United States, Canada and Great Britain. As the initiative to collect information about and recommend solutions to benzodiazepine misuse grows, the Center now is poised to sponsor and administer the MBSG from the Orono campus.
The group includes representatives from healthcare, pharmaceuticals, law enforcement and social work. Its mission is to document problems caused by benzodiazepine drugs, create a directory of preferred prescribing practices and recommend effective alternative treatment for anxiety, stress or other symptoms for which benzos are commonly prescribed. Another goal is to expand Maine’s new drug return program, a mail-back opportunity for people who no longer need the benzodiazepines or other prescription drugs to safely mail them to state drug enforcement agencies for incineration.
In most cases, prescription drugs that are no longer needed are flushed down the toilet and into municipal sewage systems. But Jennifer Crittenden, research associate at the Center on Aging, says that causes environmental problems for fish and wildlife, as narcotics flush through treatment plants and into rivers.
In an effort to reduce improper disposal of drugs, law enforcement officials in some communities have agreed to collect unneeded prescription drugs and see that they are destroyed properly, Gressitt says.
“We’re already making an impact,” Gressitt says. Law enforcement agencies have collected more than 44,000 pills from Mid-Coast area patients who no longer needed them, he says. The Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department also has picked up a significant amount of prescription drugs from Penobscot County, he says.
Those are drugs that won’t be taken accidentally by children, stolen from medicine cabinets for sale or use at parties, Gressitt says, or mixed inappropriately with other prescription drugs by people who may not realize the combinations can be dangerous.
“Every doctor can tell stories about a patient bringing in a paper bag filled with pills and saying ‘I don’t know which ones I’m supposed to be taking,’ ” he says.
For older people, adds Len Kaye, director of the Center on Aging, overuse or misuse of benzodiazepines can put such persons at greater risk of serious falls.
Additionally, the medical community is expecting difficulties in January when Medicare ends coverage for benzodiazepines. Many of the estimated 1.7 million Americans who take benzodiazepine drugs are low-income and many have developed addictions to them.
“Cold turkey is not the way to go,” says Kaye, who worries that people will substitute alcohol or other drugs that are not designed to treat symptoms for which benzos are prescribed. The Center on Aging is currently conducting research on alcohol and substance abuse by elders in Maine supported by a grant from the Maine Office of Substance Abuse.
The MBSG, now almost four years old, hopes to address benzodiazepine misuse by promoting alternative treatments whenever possible and encouraging other measures aimed at keeping prescription drugs out of the wrong hands.
“We’re beginning to bump into public policy issues and possibly can get more into practical drug policies as opposed to theoretical,” says Gressitt. “Over the last year, the Center on Aging has gotten more and more involved and has produced some research on it own.”
Kaye says Maine can be proud that a much-needed initiative to both study and reduce prescription drug misuse started here. “It’s the only group of its type known to exist,” he says. “We’re extremely pleased to be working with other individuals and organizations in the state, throughout the United States, and internationally, to address this important issue.”