By Adam S. Sulfridge / Staff Writer

A recent report by Kentucky’s Justice and Public Safety Cabinet showed the number of prescription medications dispensed per resident rose in 118 of 120 counties, and Whitley County was one of five counties which averaged more than four controlled substances per resident.

With a population of 38,000 averaging four prescriptions per person, the report suggests around 152,000 prescriptions for controlled substances were issued in Whitley County alone. In fact, Whitley Countians were dispensed higher percentages of Xanax and oxycodone prescriptions for its population in 2007 than any other Kentucky county.

Oxycodone prescriptions in Whitley County rose from 13,973 in 2005 to 20,388 in 2007 — a nearly 45 percent increase.

To help shed light on prescription drug abuse in this region, the Times-Tribune interviewed Chief Wayne Bird of the Williamsburg Police Department, which has received praise for its investigative narcotics work. In April 2008, Williamsburg police arrested more than 70 people in a drug-roundup, and of those arrested, Chief Bird estimated 95 percent were arrested for abusing prescription drugs.

“I think the statistics in the report are pretty accurate based on what we see in the community,” Bird said. “I’d say that in five of every 10 traffic stops we make, we’re going to find somebody under the influence or in possession of oxycodone.”

The numbers in the report, he believes, accurately reflect how “out of control” prescription drug abuse is in Whitley and the surrounding counties.

“Enforcing DUIs is one thing we can do to combat drug abuse, and we’re doing it,” he said. During the summer of 2009, the Times-Tribune featured several stories where Williamsburg police made drug-related arrests on I-75 for three nights in a row due to reckless driving complaints. Chief Bird added, “Alcohol-related DUIs are rock bottom right now… I arrested a guy the other night who was strictly under the influence of alcohol… he’s the first strictly alcohol DUI arrest I’ve made in four years.”

As for a 45-percent increase in prescriptions of oxycodone — a family of painkillers which includes the notorious OxyContin and Percocet medications — Chief Bird and other officers agreed it’s unrealistic to assume residents of Whitley County were in 45 percent more pain than they were two years ago.

“No, there’s not more pain now, but there are more people hooked on these prescription narcotics because it’s more accessible to them,” said Public Affairs Officer Shawn Jackson. He referenced pain clinics and the “drug pipeline” where many Kentuckians obtain valid prescriptions in Florida and other states, return to the commonwealth, and illegally sell the medication.

A portion of the blame, Bird believes, rests with state legislators who have failed to pass strict enough laws to deter drug traffickers.

“The penalties for trafficking controlled substances just aren’t stiff enough… I know the prison systems are overcrowded, but if the penalties were stiffer, I think it would deter a lot of drug-related crime,” he said.

In addition to an overcrowded prison system, he spoke of inadequate options for drug abusers who seek treatment.

“The waiting list for a decent rehab center is unreal,” Bird said with a tone of frustration. And many of those in rehab, he suggested, may only be there to avoid jail time. “A person has to really want help, but I see in the court system where people ask for rehab in order to get out of their charges.”

A report released in March by a Washington D.C. nonprofit group indicated that one of every 92 Kentuckians are serving time behind bars or under a form of probation or parole — and while the cost of the prison industry is staggering, the cost of crime on the local level may be even more alarming.

Officer Jackson said without hesitation, “Prescription narcotics are the number one problem in this area, and the majority of other crimes are related to prescription narcotics... People get hooked and start stealing to get money or merchandise to pay for their drugs or are out driving under the influence of those drugs.

“I’d like to see a study on drug-related crime… those costs add up,” Jackson added.

Chief Bird agreed, saying, “I think theft-related offenses are definitely on the rise, and I know the economy is bad, but what I see while working is that addiction to prescription medication is a major factor… people are taking anything they can find to a pawn shop and selling it… they’re taking anything that’s recyclable and getting money for it.”

One thing that would help area departments combat drug abuse and other crimes, Chief Bird said, would be more funding for officers’ overtime.

“We get flooded with calls and tips, and if you’re out there selling dope, I guarantee Williamsburg police have heard about you,” he said, “but WPD receives no funding from any type of program to help us combat drug problems.”

Drug investigations, especially those as large as his previous roundup, take a lot of time and somebody, he said, has to pay the officers for their work.

Outside of the realm of law enforcement, Bird believes policies which reduce unemployment and provide area youth with alternatives to illegal entertainment would be beneficial.

“I’d say the high rate of drug abuse is due to the unemployment rate… I think that’s the main thing,” he said, referencing how many turn to drug dealing as a means of making money. “We stop cars coming from pain clinics, and each person will have 160 Roxicets, which sell for $30 (apiece) on the street…. that’s a lot of money to be made.”

Currently, informants working for his department are buying and selling 80 milligram tablets of OxyContin. known on the streets as “OC 80’s,” for $80 to $100 each.

The University of Kentucky’s Center on Drug and Alcohol Research studied graduates of drug abuse treatment centers to measure how many relapsed and began abusing drugs again. The report concluded, “Being unemployed… consistently predicted relapse.” The report also noted, “Stable employment interrupts addiction patterns and unemployment has proven to be a stronger predictor of relapse than the severity of a client’s addiction.”

Additionally, Bird said, a portion of the area’s drug problem is attributable to kids not having enough legal forms of entertainment. “Schools do the best they can to keep kids active and participating in extracurricular activities, and if you keep kids busy doing things like that, it’s not going to stop all juvenile crime, but it would have to catch a percentage of it.”

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