Tracing pills: DEA database tracks prescribed opioids

WDAM Investigates: Tracking opioids in our communities

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - It’s a database once out of view from the public, but thanks to a court order, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s pain pill tracking system is now a bit more open. That system tracks every prescription pain pill in the country, from the manufacturer or distributor, straight to the pharmacy.

The Washington Post recently published data, analyzing shipments of oxycodone and hydrocodone from 2006 to 2012, which according to the report, “account for three-quarters of the total opioid pill shipments to pharmacies.”

According to the numbers, from 2006 to 2012, Mississippi received 854,553,185 of those prescription pain pills.

The data shows 10,259,160 went to a pharmacy in Meridian, making it the top receiving pharmacy in the state. The pharmacy owner declined to comment.

That same data shows the top receiving pharmacy in the Pine Belt is in Hattiesburg, with 5,515,210 pills, making it the seventh highest in state. The current owner, who wasn’t the owner during the years in question, declined to comment.

“These pharmaceutical drugs have a high propensity for addiction, misuses and abuse,” said Steven Maxwell, Deputy Director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics.

During a time when opioids are being blamed for increased deaths across the country, Maxwell believes many people underestimate the potency of those pills and their addictive potential.

“It is still a major and significant threat to public safety and public health in the State of Mississippi,” said Maxwell.

The database isn’t meant to blame pharmacies, but rather, show where the pills are going and which companies and distributors are sending them.

“We take it very serious that there’s an issue out there and we want to be a part of the solution,” said Joe Robertson, pharmacist and owner of Wallace Discount Drugs in Laurel.

Wallace Discount Drugs tops the list for Jones County.

“We’re one of the busiest independent pharmacies in the state, and so, as a result, we’re going to do a lot of opioid prescriptions,” said Robertson.

Robertson said because there are a lot of people who need those medications, making sure the pills don’t end up in the wrong hands is an ongoing battle.

“It’s our job to make sure the right people get them and they’re used for legitimate reasons,” said Robertson.

For the most part, Maxwell says Mississippi pharmacies do a good job of staying ahead of the problem. Back in 2016, the state created a drug task force, which Maxwell said helped reduce both the number of prescriptions and the amount of pills associated with them.

When it comes to pharmaceutical companies, which do provide a needed product, Maxwell says there’s more work to be done.

“What we need form the pharmaceutical companies is more transparency. What we needed and what we’re getting from the prescribes and dispensers is more accountability and responsibility,” said Maxwell.

Once those prescriptions leave the pharmacy, tracking from the DEA ends, and part of Maxwell’s job begins.

“Those of us who are prescribed these medications, we have to become more and more aware about the medications that we’re being prescribed, how we take those medications and how we properly dispose of those medications and protect them from others getting their hands on them," said Maxwell.

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