In rural communities, pharmaceutical narcotics have become a commodity people are willing to pay for on the black market, often to satisfy an addiction. In turn, others are willing to sell these drugs as a source of income, Sorg says.
Rural areas can be particularly susceptible, especially where poverty is an important factor and where there may be more blue-collar jobs associated with occupational injuries that may be treated with prescription narcotics.
“There is a cultural aspect to this, in that rural populations don’t look kindly on things like heroin abuse,” Sorg says. “However, pills just don’t come with the same cultural baggage. People feel safer with pills and see them in a different realm than illicit drugs. With prescription drugs, there’s a perception of safety because they’re associated with the medical establishment.”
But prescription drugs are only safe if taken as directed. In 2009 in Maine, the number of deaths from drugs — both illegal and prescribed — reached 179 — an all-time high. Between 1997 and 2009 a total of 1,625 Maine citizens died as a result of drugs. About 90 percent of those deaths — 29 percent of which are suicides — are due to at least one prescription drug, either with or without other drugs or alcohol, Sorg says.
Pharmaceutical narcotics have other negative effects in Maine communities. According to Sorg’s analysis of Maine Drug Enforcement Agency data, prescription drug arrests constituted 37 percent of all 2009 drug arrests — up from 19 percent in 2003. Trafficking of prescription drugs has outpaced cocaine in Maine.
Attorney General Janet Mills, speaking this past February to the Maine chiefs of police, noted that in the past 19 months, at least six of the murders committed in Maine were related to prescription drugs. Pharmaceutical narcotics also are at the root of many robberies, thefts, burglaries, home invasions and assaults.
“Prescription drug diversion is an epidemic in our state, in our nation today,” Mills said. “This is a public health issue, an economic issue, a public safety issue. Prescription drug diversion is the number one cause of crime in Maine. It is one of the major causes of death in Maine.”
Image Description: Drug Admissions 2009 - Rx Narcotics, 54%; Heroin, 16%