Report: Abuse of medication rising


Published: Sunday, January 9, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 8, 2005 at 11:52 p.m.
Autopsy results statewide continue to show the presence of prescription drugs at lethal levels more often than illegal drugs at lethal levels, a report from the Florida Medical Examiners Commission covering the first half of 2004 shows.
Both FDLE Commissioner Guy Tunnell and Jim McDonough, director of the Florida Office of Drug Control, commented on what they called a continuing problem of drug abuse and prescription drugs.
"Far too many Floridians are dying from the illicit use of prescription drugs," McDonough said in a statement. "While Florida is successfully reducing drug use among its youth, and has seen the death rates from cocaine and heroin abuse flatten out and decrease slightly, prescription drug abuse has driven the mortality rates higher."
Paul Doering, a distinguished service professor in the UF College of Pharmacy, said the statewide numbers show that people continue to die from the use of prescription drugs. Prescription drugs also were found more often than illegal drugs at nonlethal levels.
But he cautioned about drawing too many conclusions about drug use locally from the report. The numbers are too small for proper statistical comparison.
Also, Doering said, the report does not offer much additional information about individuals who died. Factors such as their prior medical history or whether they had been using the drug for a long time, for example, could influence data.
"Before people start drawing hard and fast conclusions, it would necessitate going in and looking almost in a case-by-case fashion," he said. "People are wanting to look at this data with a naked eye when in fact they should be looking at it with a Hubble telescope if they want to make real changes," either to treatment, prevention or law enforcement strategies dealing with drug use, he said.
Still, said University of Florida toxicologist Bruce Goldberger, "Although these numbers are for only the first six months, they are an excellent indicator of what to expect for the end of the year."
Two of the three drugs considered the most lethal - meaning they caused death in more than 50 percent of the cases where they were found - were the prescription drugs methadone and fentanyl, both prescribed as painkillers.
Methadone has been increasingly prescribed in place of the pain medication oxycodone and often is associated with heroin detoxification and maintenance programs.
The occurrence of methadone found in autopsies increased during the first half of 2004 by 32.4 percent compared to the last half of 2003. Deaths caused by methadone rose 50 percent.
Methadone was found in combination with other drugs in six cases in the six counties covered by the District 8 Medical Examiner's Office in Gainesville, the report states. The district includes Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Gilchrist, Levy and Union counties.
Figures for fentanyl, a painkiller, were not reported for the area.
Goldberger also said the report shows increases statewide regarding the painkiller hydrocodone, including cases where deaths were caused by the drug or it showed up in an autopsy.
Other drugs found more often in autopsies than during the past six months of 2003 included cannabinoids, which are chemicals found in marijuana, as well as alprazolam or Xanax and hydromorphone, an opiate-based narcotic used as a painkiller.
The report, released several weeks ago by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, covers data from January through June.
Topping the list of lethal drugs was heroin, although deaths caused by the drug decreased by 10 percent when compared to the last half of 2003, according to the 2004 Interim Report of Drugs.
Heroin was not reported in connection with any autopsy results from the Gainesville area.
Cocaine was documented in 21 autopsies in area death investigation cases, compared to 15 for all of 2002. More than 40 cases where cocaine was found were reported in 2003, almost triple the amount from the earlier year. Of the 21 cases, the cause of death was attributed to cocaine and was the only drug found in one case. Statewide, occurrences of cocaine rose by 2.6 percent while deaths caused by the drug decreased by less than 1 percent.
Medical examiners statewide collect the data using information gathered from autopsies. Of about 92,000 deaths in Florida during the first half month of last year, 3,510 people were found to have died with one or more drugs noted in the report in their system.
Lise Fisher can be reached at (352) 374-5092 or fisherl@gvillesun.com. DRUG REPORT on Page 3B Continued from 1B DRUG REPORT: Mortality rates high Deadly drugs
  • The three drugs considered the most lethal are heroin, methadone and fentanyl. In more than 50 percent of the cases where these drugs were found they caused death.
  • The three drugs most often found in autopsies were ethyl alcohol and all benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Valium, and cocaine.
  • Medical examiners statewide collect the data using information gathered from autopsies. Of about 92,000 deaths in Florida during the first half month of last year, 3,510 people were found to have died with one or more drugs noted in the report in their system.
    Write comments here Report: Abuse of medication rising
  • Considered the most lethal were the prescription drugs methadone and fentanyl, both prescribed as painkillers.
    By LISE FISHER SUN STAFF WRITER Autopsy results statewide continue to show the presence of prescription drugs at lethal levels more often than illegal drugs at lethal levels, a report from the Florida Medical Examiners Commission covering the first half of 2004 shows.
    Both FDLE Commissioner Guy Tunnell and Jim McDonough, director of the Florida Office of Drug Control, commented on what they called a continuing problem of drug abuse and prescription drugs.
    "Far too many Floridians are dying from the illicit use of prescription drugs," McDonough said in a statement. "While Florida is successfully reducing drug use among its youth, and has seen the death rates from cocaine and heroin abuse flatten out and decrease slightly, prescription drug abuse has driven the mortality rates higher."
    Paul Doering, a distinguished service professor in the UF College of Pharmacy, said the statewide numbers show that people continue to die from the use of prescription drugs. Prescription drugs also were found more often than illegal drugs at nonlethal levels.
    But he cautioned about drawing too many conclusions about drug use locally from the report. The numbers are too small for proper statistical comparison.
    Also, Doering said, the report does not offer much additional information about individuals who died. Factors such as their prior medical history or whether they had been using the drug for a long time, for example, could influence data.
    "Before people start drawing hard and fast conclusions, it would necessitate going in and looking almost in a case-by-case fashion," he said. "People are wanting to look at this data with a naked eye when in fact they should be looking at it with a Hubble telescope if they want to make real changes," either to treatment, prevention or law enforcement strategies dealing with drug use, he said.
    Still, said University of Florida toxicologist Bruce Goldberger, "Although these numbers are for only the first six months, they are an excellent indicator of what to expect for the end of the year."
    Two of the three drugs considered the most lethal - meaning they caused death in more than 50 percent of the cases where they were found - were the prescription drugs methadone and fentanyl, both prescribed as painkillers.
    Methadone has been increasingly prescribed in place of the pain medication oxycodone and often is associated with heroin detoxification and maintenance programs.
    The occurrence of methadone found in autopsies increased during the first half of 2004 by 32.4 percent compared to the last half of 2003. Deaths caused by methadone rose 50 percent.
    Methadone was found in combination with other drugs in six cases in the six counties covered by the District 8 Medical Examiner's Office in Gainesville, the report states. The district includes Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Gilchrist, Levy and Union counties.
    Figures for fentanyl, a painkiller, were not reported for the area.
    Goldberger also said the report shows increases statewide regarding the painkiller hydrocodone, including cases where deaths were caused by the drug or it showed up in an autopsy.
    Other drugs found more often in autopsies than during the past six months of 2003 included cannabinoids, which are chemicals found in marijuana, as well as alprazolam or Xanax and hydromorphone, an opiate-based narcotic used as a painkiller.
    The report, released several weeks ago by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, covers data from January through June.
    Topping the list of lethal drugs was heroin, although deaths caused by the drug decreased by 10 percent when compared to the last half of 2003, according to the 2004 Interim Report of Drugs.
    Heroin was not reported in connection with any autopsy results from the Gainesville area.
    Cocaine was documented in 21 autopsies in area death investigation cases, compared to 15 for all of 2002. More than 40 cases where cocaine was found were reported in 2003, almost triple the amount from the earlier year. Of the 21 cases, the cause of death was attributed to cocaine and was the only drug found in one case. Statewide, occurrences of cocaine rose by 2.6 percent while deaths caused by the drug decreased by less than 1 percent.
    Medical examiners statewide collect the data using information gathered from autopsies. Of about 92,000 deaths in Florida during the first half month of last year, 3,510 people were found to have died with one or more drugs noted in the report in their system.
    Lise Fisher can be reached at (352) 374-5092 or fisherl@gvillesun.com.
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