AG's office: Fentanyl an emerging health threat in Mississippi

Published: Mar. 26, 2015 at 7:02 PM CDT
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(The following is a press release from the Mississippi Attorney General's office.)

Jackson, MS--The federal Drug Enforcement Administration issued a warning last week on the number of overdose deaths caused by heroin laced with the potent prescription drug fentanyl. Attorney General Jim Hood and state Bureau of Narcotics Director Sam Owens want to warn those abusing opioid-based painkillers that heroin is a dead-end alternative due to its unregulated potency and especially when it is laced with fentanyl.

Some heroin dealers are lacing their heroin with fentanyl to make it more potent. When heroin addicts inject the same amount of their regular heroin doses as heroin laced with fentanyl, they often overdose and die.

Authorities say fentanyl, a highly regulated narcotic used as part of anesthesia to help prevent pain after surgery or other medical procedure, is the most potent opioid available for medical treatment. It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin.

“There were 154 drug overdose deaths reported to the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics in 2014.  Of the total, eight involved fentanyl,” said Director Owens.

Attorney General Hood stated: "I have watched Kentucky, Florida and other states battle to stop the abuse of prescription painkillers. When painkiller addicts couldn't get primarily opioid-based painkillers, they turned to heroin. The heroin overdose death rates climbed even higher because there is no standard for potency in the illegally manufactured drug market. I hope we can stop this threat before it gets a foothold in our state."

Last year the MBN had only four fentanyl cases that totaled fewer than 200 dosage units among them. “The cases involved transdermal patches, which sell on the illicit market for approximately $50 per patch,” said Director Owens.

“Because the drug is easily absorbed into the skin and can be accidentally inhaled as airborne powder, it is a serious threat to law enforcement officers involved in undercover operations,” said Attorney General Hood.

Authorities say the high cost and low availability of some narcotics cause many opioid addicts to turn to other prescription drugs that offer similar effects. Hydrocodone, which is prescribed for severe pain, is a popular alternative.

“Even the most civic-minded persons can find themselves caught up in the addiction cycle after an accident and the use of certain prescription drugs,” Attorney General Hood warns. "I have seen veterans who were injured in Iraq get hooked on painkillers, such as Hydrocodone, to help kill the pain from their war injuries. When doctors stop prescribing the pills, some turn to heroin. I know one this happened to and he died of a heroin overdose."

Mississippi's prescription drug monitoring program shows physicians, in 2014, wrote more than two million prescriptions for Hydrocodone, with more than 100 million dosage units prescribed. “That's nearly one prescription for every person in the state,” said Director Owens.

Attorney General Hood said, "Doctor shopping by pain pill addicts is a problem. The states of Kentucky and Florida passed legislation requiring that doctors must check the Prescription Drug Monitoring system online before prescribing primarily opioid -based painkillers. This lets doctors know whether the patient has had other doctors prescribe other medications during the same period. Our Legislature has not yet seen fit to put that burden on our doctors. Most doctors and pharmacists now have immediate access to a fully functioning Prescription Drug Monitoring system.  I think we will work out a solution to prevent addicts from doctor shopping for pain pills."

Authorities say common signs of prescription drug abuse include requesting frequent refills, seeing two or more doctors for additional prescriptions, focusing on the drug more than anything else, extreme and sudden changes in social activities as well as mood swings. “If you suspect a loved one is getting hooked on a prescription drug, it's important to immediately seek professional help,” said Attorney General Hood.