Almost 75 percent of heroin users in a local study of 75 people found they started with prescription pills. That was a decade ago. Now the problem is even worse, said Dr. Richard Blondell, one of the study’s authors and vice chairman for Addiction Medicine at the University of Buffalo.
“Prevention is the solution ... Three quarters of the problem is entirely preventable,” he said. “It’s like dandelions. You can cut off the top but if you don’t cut out the roots, it comes back.”
Blondell spoke at a Friday afternoon press conference held by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to announce legislation she intends to push so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention create guidelines to limit opioid prescriptions for short-term, sudden “acute” pain like a pulled muscle or a wisdom tooth extraction.
“They’re leaving with more medicine than they need,” said Gillibrand. “Why are they being sent home with enough for 30 days?”
She spoke surrounded by a small crowd including Mayor Byron Brown, families who lost loved ones to addiction and advocates at a Friday afternoon press conference in the fifth floor hallway of Jacobs Insitute at Gates Vascular Institute hospital. “I beg all of you to keep raising your voices about this issue,” Gillibrand said.
Blondell described some of the highlights from the study published in 2011 in the Journal of Addiction Medicine: 41 percent of the 75 people started out using legitimately prescribed opioids like Percocet, Vicodin and OxyContin. Another 32 percent started using pills from a friend who had a prescription. The rest, 27 percent, bought drugs on the street.
The current heroin addiction and overdose crisis that includes 10 deaths in 10 days is the worst epidemic Blondell’s seen in his 35-year career. Doctors are to blame, he said.
“We created this mess by over-prescribing and we’re going to have to clean it up by being smarter,” he said.
While the CDC is now at work on guidelines for prescriptions to ease chronic pain, Blondell, like Gillibrand, believes that short-term, acute prescription painkiller guidelines are equally essential. Prescription drugs are a gateway to heroin, he said.
“I’ve seen it over and over again,” said Blondell who is also the director of National Center for Addiction Training at UB. “When there’s an oversupply of drugs just wandering around out there, people take them.”