Still a Long Road Ahead in the Prescription Drug Abuse Fight – Part 2

[Read Part 1 here] -By Kendal Patterson

Positive Changes

Though the prescription drug abuse battle is far from won, Natalie is grateful for the victories in her four years of involvement in the issue. She and a network of supporters wrote, gathered and sent a flood of letters that helped ensure the 2013 implementation of California’s Good Samaritan law, which allows those who witness a drug-related overdose to seek emergency assistance without the fear of arrest or prosecution. Natalie hopes the law will eventually be adopted nationwide.

She also helped rally support for improvements to California’s prescription drug tracking program, called CURES. The program had languished since being introduced several years ago, plagued by a loss of funding and technical shortcomings. Recent state legislation infused money with the help of small annual fees on doctors and pharmacists, and requires doctors to register with the system and for pharmacists to enter all prescription drug orders into the database.

When up and running as expected in a couple of years, CURES should signal when a doctor is prescribing too many opiates or when a patient is shopping for multiple doctors to write prescriptions. It’s still not mandatory that doctors actually check the database before writing a prescription for an addictive drug – that provision was stripped out before the bill was able to pass, along with one that would have required pharmaceutical companies to help defray costs – “but I think there will be enough pressure from people that doctors will start using it just to protect their own rear ends,” Natalie said. “At least the savvy ones will.” And prescription abuse can be monitored through the prescription-filling part of the process as well. “If there’s a tip that the doctor is dirty, [authorities] can check the CURES system and see what is going on.”

natalie-costa-1Natalie is also encouraged by the use of medications, such as Vivitrol, that are proving effective in diminishing cravings for opiates and helping prevent relapse. “In combination with working a program, this at least gives the parents or the addict time.” And she applauds the FDA’s recent approval of an auto-injecting syringe for opioid overdose.

Another FDA decision, however, has left her baffled and frustrated. Against the advice of its own advisory committee, the FDA approved the release of a powerful opioid painkiller called Zohydro. “It’s pure heroin in a pill,” Natalie said. She and many other critics of the decision fear the pill holds too great a potential for abuse, and the concentrated dosage will increase the likelihood of overdose. In some states, governors are attempting to have Zohydro banned, but Natalie worries even this will play into the drug companies’ hands. Another even stronger painkiller is waiting in the wings, she said. “It’s like a Pez. Pull one out and another one comes up. … Pain pills are needed and medication is needed, no one is saying they’re not. But we’re trying to battle a prescription drug issue where one person dies every 19 minutes in America. So the governing body of all these pills is clearly not thinking about this issue.”

The frustrations of the fight can seem endless, she said. “It’s like a dike is leaking and I don’t have enough fingers and toes to plug it.”

What Parents Should Know

The most encouraging sign for Natalie is that people are now talking about prescription drug abuse, and awareness of the danger is growing. No longer is a prescription pill seen as a safer form of drug use simply because it was originally prescribed. “Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t stop me in the grocery store or somewhere” to talk about their experiences with the issue, she said. “Everybody knows somebody who is going through this problem.”

Asked what insights her efforts have given her that she can share with parents, Natalie said, “I think that the biggest advice is you need to be their parent and not their friend.” Conversation is essential, “but I think so many parents are trying to placate their kids … and I don’t think that’s doing anybody any good.”

Look for the signs, she said, and don’t be afraid to act. “If things start popping up, drug test your kids at home.” The threat of testing can also give young people a face-saving way to pass on drug use when pressured by peers, she added. “When they go out, they can say, ‘My mother, she’s such a wingnut, and she’s going to drug test me when I get home,’ and it gives them an out not to do it.”

A zero tolerance policy is essential, she said – and that includes for the parents themselves. “If your kids see you popping a Xanax and washing it down with a big glass of wine because you’re stressed out, that’s a learned behavior.”

Future Focus

As she moves forward, Natalie plans to focus on reaching kids and parents before use starts “because once they are in that mess, that’s a whole other ball of wax.”

natalie-costa-2“This generation of 18- to 25-year-olds is in severe trouble,” she said. “A lot of these parents say when their kid walks out the door, they never know if they’ll ever see them again. Or they’re just gone. They just have no idea where they are. … Parents would rather be in hell because this is lower than hell – trying to get your kids clean and wondering if they’re dead.”

By connecting with adolescents before problems start, “then we are saving a whole other generation,” she said. “That’s really where I’m trying to focus my talks and my energies and my push.”

Along those lines, Natalie was recently signed by a Texas group to speak to educators about drug issues “because the other stumbling block is schools,” she said. “Superintendents don’t want to address it. Principals don’t want to bring attention to their schools – that there might be problems. The resource officers are saying, ‘Oh, we’re not seeing pills.’ … So there are all these factors you bump into. But you just keep talking and hope it’s going to fall on the right ears, and who will need to hear it will hear it.”

Natalie also recently helped craft a series of public service announcements, The Face of Addiction, using the young talent in her school, as a way to showcase how drug problems can begin.

And of the film that started it all? Natalie will continue to show “Behind the Orange Curtain” to any who wish to see it, hoping that its message will continue to open eyes and inspire communication. She said she has heard of several instances after a screening in which “a family is driving home and the kid in the car says, ‘We really need to have a talk. I’ve been taking OxyContin,’ or whatever,” she said. “It’s those kinds of stories that make it all worthwhile.”

Posted on April 23rd, 2014

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