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ASU report reveals rising prescription drug abuse

March 10, 2010

A recently released survey of Maricopa County jail facilities reveals a striking increase in the use of opiates and prescription painkillers among new inmates.

Law enforcement officials say the report by ASU’s Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety is significant because similar surveys in the past have spotted the emergence of crack cocaine in the 1980s and methamphetamine abuse in the 1990s.

The pronounced spike in positive tests for opiates (heroin) and common pain medications such as Vicodin, OxyContin, codeine, Demerol and Darvon occurred in 2009. The recent rise was noticeable particularly in non-violent, white, male property offenders.  

Don Stapley, chairman of the board of supervisors, said he was most concerned by the fact that the problem is not limited to low-income or high-crime areas of the Valley.

“What is alarming is the abuse of prescription drugs seems to be occurring countywide and not concentrated in areas where crime has always been a problem,” Stapley said. “We see emerging trends in Scottsdale, Arrowhead in Glendale, and in Surprise. We are going to have to watch if this trend spreads to the general population and to other groups of offenders.”

Amy Rex, manager of Maricopa County Justice Project, discussed the implications of the trend.

“If this is indeed the result of prescription drugs, then it’s like nothing we’ve really seen before," Rex said. "Prescriptions are legal and perceived as safe, and carry no social stigma.”

To read the complete report, click here.

The Arizona Arrestee Reporting Information Network (AARIN) supplies law enforcement, criminal justice, treatment providers and social services agencies with detailed statistics on incarcerated individuals, based on individual interviews and urine tests. AARIN is funded by Maricopa County and the interviews took place in booking facilities across the county. AARIN surveys follow a National Institute of Justice program, the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring (ADAM) which identified national drug trends prior to 2002.

More detailed study is needed into the exact nature of the problem, said Charles Katz, ASU criminology professor and director of ASU’s Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety.

“We do know that the vast majority of persons with positive tests for opiates say they are addicted and need treatment,” Katz said. “Treatment providers need to be aware of this so they can meet this increasing demand for services, and law enforcement will have to gear up to decrease supplies of these opiates.”  

Law enforcement officials said they were not surprised by the findings.

“The prescription drug abuse problem is second only to marijuana and the problem continues to escalate,” said Rich Rosky, Southwest coordinator of the National Meth and Pharmaceutical Initiative. “We have seen more emergency room episodes and more overdose deaths involving prescription drug abuse. And we have seen a significant rise in teen abuse of prescription drugs.”  

“The upswing in arrestees testing positive for opiates is disturbing to see, but it’s a trend that mirrors our teen population," said Leslie Bloom, chief executive officer of Partnership for a Drug-Free America, Arizona Affiliate. “Here in Arizona one out of four teens has abused a prescription pain reliever which is double the national average. We encourage parents to do three things: educate themselves on the prescription medicines kids are abusing; communicate the risks of abusing prescription medications to their children; and safeguard their medicine cabinets.”

Stapley has been pleased with previous interagency efforts regarding meth and hopes the same can continue with prescriptions. These include state, municipal and county law enforcement, nonprofits, and public and private social service agencies, including a task force headed by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.

The Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety aims to improve the quality of life in communities through research that offers answers to solving the complexities of interpersonal violence. The center analyzes and evaluates patterns and causes of violence; develops strategies and programs; performs research and creates “best practice” models; educates, trains and provides technical assistance; and facilitates the development of and construction of databases.

Cari Gerchick, Richard de Uriarte, Maricopa County 602-506-7232
Amy Rex, Maricopa County Justice Project, 602- 506-1310

Corey Schubert
College of Public Programs