Bitter pills

Doctors, taxpayers both must help solve growing problem of opioid addictions

Modern medicine has helped make our lives better in many ways, but medical treatment can have a downside, too — such as the growing number of deaths from overdoses of narcotics, both prescribed and illicit. Finding a solution will require changing how pain medications are prescribed and increasing treatment programs.

A two-part series of stories by Mail Tribune reporter Mandy Valencia laid out the sobering statistics: Of 141 deaths from accidental drug overdoses from 2004 to 2011, 80 percent were from prescribed opiates. Heroin overdoses also have seen a sharp increase, and local experts say people who become dependent on presciption painkillers often turn to heroin because it is cheaper.

Dr. Jim Shames, medical director of Jackson County Health and Human Services, has been working with local physicians to help them avoid over-prescribing painkillers and teach them to recognize signs their patients are becoming addicted.

It would be easy to blame doctors for handing out narcotics recklessly, but it wouldn't be fair. When advocates for the terminally ill pushed for better end-of-life care, doctors were told they should be more willing to prescribe powerful painkillers to ease the discomfort of those dying of painful diseases such as cancer. Now, physicians are being told they are prescribing too many narcotics because patients are becoming addicted.

It's important to find the delicate balance between easing suffering and encouraging addiction, and the Opioid Prescriber's Group Shames has worked with for two years is attempting to do just that.

At the same time, it's important to recognize that some people will become addicted to painkillers despite everyone's best efforts, and they will need help to overcome their addictions. That costs money.

Finding public dollars to pay for drug treatment is never easy. There is a widespread belief that addiction is a moral failing, and it shouldn't be up to the taxpayers to help those who fall prey to it.

That ignores the reality that many people become addicted through no fault of their own in the course of recovering from serious injury or disease. It also ignores the very real societal costs of addiction.

People dependent on prescribed drugs turn to the more affordable illegal heroin market. They also commit crimes, stealing from friends, relatives and strangers to pay for their habits.

Property crimes — especially theft, robbery and car theft — have increased sharply in the past six years, according to Medford Police Department statistics. Leading all those crimes is the 73 percent increase in drug offenses.

Drug treatment programs are a far better use of public money than locking up addicts for committing crimes to feed their habits. Physicians have an important role to play in preventing opioid addiction, and the public needs to do its part to treat those who fall into that trap.

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