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Prescription drug abuse declining locally, nationwide

Prescription-drug abuse continues to be a problem in Jackson County, though local law enforcement and treatment officials say we might have turned a corner on the issue.

Dr. Jim Shames, medical director of Jackson County Health and Human Services and the medical officer for Josephine County, said overdose deaths from prescription drugs have declined locally since 2006.

The reason for this is local doctors are developing better treatment guidelines and are not overprescribing painkillers that are very addictive.

"It's still a problem here, just as it's still a problem everywhere," Shames said.

Federal drug officials recently reported that abuse of prescription drugs is on the decline nationally. The Department of Health and Human Services noted that the number of adults between the ages of 18 and 25 who abuse prescription drugs dropped by 14 percent, from 2 million to 1.7 million, in 2011.

Lt. Brett Johnson, who supervises the Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement Team, said local law enforcement officers still are finding illegal prescriptions on the streets, but the number is lower than in previous years.

"So far this year, we've made 14 cases involving illegal possession of oxycodone in Medford," Johnson said. "In addition to that, we've taken 30 reports of stolen oxy."

Painkiller addiction remains a problem, however.

According to the Oregon High Intensity Drug Area, or HIDTA, annual report, released earlier this year, Jackson County has the most people in Oregon per capita who seek treatment for prescription-medication addiction. Many of these people seek treatment on their own, not because they've been arrested or convicted of drug crimes.

Johnson said illegal prescriptions are becoming harder to get because pharmacies are better at spotting forged physician's notes for painkiller refills.

"We still have people who forge prescriptions, but we are seeing less and less of that," Johnson said.

It is a felony to tamper with drug records in Oregon.

The bad news in all of this is that as prescription-drug cases decline, there has been a noticeable uptick in the amount of heroin seized on the streets of Medford, Johnson said.

Shames backs this claim, saying that heroin use is on the rise in Jackson County, because it has changed forms into a smokeable type that is more affordable.

"Heroin remains cheap and prescriptions are expensive," Shames said.

Johnson believes some people who become addicted to opiates such as oxycodone will turn to heroin if they can't find a pill supply.

"We are making multiple heroin arrests every week," Johnson said. "When I first started working drugs 10 years ago, you had only a small group of people using heroin. Now we see a lot of younger folks using this 'gunpowder' kind that you can smoke."

Earlier this year, MADGE seized 49 pounds of heroin at a local bus station. Oregon State Police found 55 pounds during a car stop a few weeks later on Interstate 5 near Ashland.

Much of that heroin was on its way to large markets in Portland and Seattle, but some of it surely will make its way to Medford, Johnson said.

"Meth continues to be the biggest drug problem in our area," Johnson said. "But I can see heroin overtaking it if this keeps up."

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.