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Special Report: Powerful Painkillers

Updated: Wednesday, April 30 2014, 06:55 PM EDT
Special Report: Powerful Painkillers story image

Right now North Carolina is asking the Food and Drug Administration to repeal approval of a powerful painkiller, worried about abuse and overdoses.


Other ones are coming along, and many are already in our mountain communities.   Used incorrectly, people from all walks of life are dying.


Law enforcement officers say in Haywood County alone, it's a huge problem. They’re talking to schools, organizations, and churches to educate people. And there are recent developments at the state and federal level to keep tighter reins on these powerful painkillers.


It’s been almost five years since John Chapman lost his son and namesake, John Junior, to a prescription drug overdose.


“The friend went and bought 2 Fentanyl patches.  Gave him one of them. Told him to chew it like chewing gum. Well, that's a 3-day dose of medicine that he absorbed at one time.  (He) lay down and went to sleep and just never woke up.”


Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed says, “Western North Carolina is way ahead of the other counties in our state as far as prescription overdose deaths, death by opiates.”


He Says Haywood County is a painkiller battleground.


 “When you look at the total number of deaths in your county, and at one point having 1 out of 3, or 1 out of 4 people dying of just prescription drug overdoses, that's way too many.  And that's a death that can be prevented.”


He says part of the problem is the myth about prescription drugs.


”A lot of people feel like prescription drugs aren't near as addictive as some of the illicit street drugs when in reality, the opiates, the painkillers are just as if not more addictive than a lot of the illicit street drugs.”


Doctor Bart Paschal is a medical oncologist in Clyde.  He says the result is hundreds of deaths across the state, 670 in 2012 alone.


 “They estimate of those, about 70 percent were related to the prescription opioids getting out of the possession of the person to whom it was prescribed.”


With highly addictive prescription pills floating around the community, pharmacists like Kim Ferguson are seeing people willing to resort to crime to get their hands on them.  Her Waynesville pharmacy was broken into two years ago, and she's seeing worse.


“A pharmacist in Virginia was shot and killed during an armed robbery in his store during business hours. The guy wanted oxycodone.”


Some pharmacists won't even carry newer even more powerful pain killers like Zohydro.   Ferguson says existing medication works and the state is asking the FDA to withdraw Zohydro due to packaging concerns.


“Asking the manufacturer to put the medication in a tamper-proof pill rather than just the capsule that can be readily abused,” says Chief Hollingsed.


The FDA has rejected another new painkiller called Moxduo, which mixes morphine with oxycodone. The FDA says it could have led to more drug abuse.


“I just assume see the FDA require the drug companies who make the drugs to do long term studies to prove that they're safe and effective,” says Dr. Paschal.


He says short term drug studies, sometimes just 16 weeks, don't give an accurate picture of addiction. He says doctors are complaining to the FDA about a growing problem they're calling “opioid use disorder."


At the state level, Dr. Paschal says there is promising news from the medical board, which is currently working on a policy requiring doctors to be more careful when prescribing painkillers, to screen patients for substance abuse disorders, or psychological issues, and to monitor any diversion of drugs to other people.  And there would be consequences.



“If there's an injury to the patient or overdose or death from opioids, and they haven't followed guidelines outlined by the North Carolina Medical Board, then their license could be in jeopardy,” says Paschal.


These area all steps in the right direction to John Chapman.  But he'll always miss his son, and he worries we haven't seen the worst yet.


He says stiff penalties and education are the biggest weapons to fight prescription drug abuse. And he says everybody needs to pay attention.


“This gets everybody.  It doesn’t just get a few people.. It gets everybody.”


The state medical board is seeking input on the new prescription drug guidelines and will issue a formal policy statement at the end of May.


For help with narcotics addiction, you can call the NC Region of Narcotics Anonymous. The NC Mountain Area Hotline is 1-888-764-0365, or click on their webpage at


By Rex Hodge

Follow Rex on Twitter @RexHodgeWLOS

Special Report: Powerful Painkillers
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