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Medford sees 45 percent jump in drug arrests

MEDFORD — The increased availability of prescription opiates and a bump in cocaine and heroin use are partially responsible for an alarming 45 percent jump in drug complaints over the past year, according to police.

"We are still seeing a lot of the methamphetamine and marijuana, which are always our biggest culprits, but the prescription drug just keeps growing," Medford Police Deputy Chief Tim George said.

Through April, Medford police had handled 428 drug cases, up from 295 at the same time last year. This 45-percent spike has police and addiction treatment officials worried.

The state's push to make meth ingredients, such as pseudoephedrine, harder to get from retail stores may have contributed to more addicts moving toward cocaine and heroin as their drugs of choice, George said.

"What we're seeing is meth has become more expensive and so these other narcotics are stepping in to fill that void," George said.

Over the past year, Medford police have seized 371 grams of heroin and 358 grams of cocaine, a slight increase over the previous year, George said.

Heroin and cocaine use in Medford is by no means as rampant as in some metropolitan areas. Methamphetamine and marijuana still comprise the bulk of the agencies' drug arrests. Last year, Medford police seized 3,128 grams of meth and 6,326 grams of marijuana.

However, the increasing regularity with which opiates are appearing in arrest reports is troubling, George said.

Meth addicts who move to heroin often get themselves into trouble because opiates are more dangerous when taken in large quantities.

"The problem is you don't know how pure the dose is when you take it," said Rita Sullivan, executive director of OnTrack, an addiction recovery program in Medford. "It is easier to (overdose) on opiates than methamphetamine."

Opiates accounted for 15 of the county's 16 accidental overdose deaths last year. One person died from methamphetamine overdose, according to records provided by the Jackson County Medical Examiner's Office.

In overdose deaths that have been labeled "undetermined" by the medical examiner, meaning the manner of death could not be ruled an accident or a suicide, opiates accounted for eight of those nine reported fatalities.

Dr. Jim Shames, Jackson County's health officer, said the approach doctors are taking toward prescribing pain medication has contributed to the growing amount of opiates such as oxycodone, oxycontin, percocet and vicodin on the streets.

At one time, doctors prescribed powerful painkillers such as oxycontin for cancer patients and the like. Now, it's not uncommon for people with minor dental work and sprains to receive bottles of oxycontin, Shames said.

"They are treating chronic pain more compassionately than they used to," Shames said. "This change in philosophy has led to a surplus of opiates."

Sullivan agrees that opiates are increasingly easier to get and sell.

"We have people going to multiple doctors, getting them off the Internet, off the street," she said. "And when they can't get them in these places anymore, they sometimes turn to drugs such as heroin for their addiction."

Sullivan said it will take a community response to combat this growing problem. She argues that more people should support measures that keep track of drugs people are given. Oregon is one of 12 states without some form of prescription drug monitoring program.

State Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, is co-sponsoring a bill that would create a database for pharmacists to monitor people receiving prescription drugs. The bill could reduce the likelihood of doctors handing out prescriptions to people who might abuse them.

"We are hoping the numbers we're seeing will level off at some point this year," George said. "But we will not count on it."

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.