FARMINGTON -- The illegal use of prescription drugs is at epidemic levels, not just in Davis County, but in Utah and across the country, officials said.
In one week's time, the Davis Metro Narcotics Strike Force arrested and charged two women with forging prescriptions. Both women were using their medical knowledge to get painkillers illegally, officers said.
Even though Utah ranks low nationally on the number of people who abuse prescription drugs, each month an average of 23 Utahns has died as a result of an overdose of prescription opioids, according to the state's Department of Health. That is more than the number of Utahns killed in car crashes.
In 2010 in Utah, 278 deaths were caused by prescription drugs and 207 people died as a result of car accidents, according to the state Department of Health.
And painkillers are becoming the drug of choice for many teenagers nationwide, with marijuana ranked as No. 1.
The problem is so big that the Davis Metro Narcotics Strike Force and the Weber-Morgan Metro Narcotics Strike Force each have assigned one officer to be responsible for crimes related to using prescriptions illegally.
The most common prescriptions being misused are hydrocodone, also known as Lortab, and oxycodone, officers said.
The people abusing the prescriptions are "living next door to you and me," said Deputy Davis County Attorney Rick Westmoreland. Some begin as recreational users and become addicted, but "most folks start using the drugs for legitimate medical reasons and then get hooked on the pain killers," Westmoreland said.
And getting the drugs from a pharmacy can be easy if a person "has enough medical knowledge and knows the lingo and calls it in" for themselves, Westmoreland said.
Some will make appointments with a doctor and while waiting to see the doctor, steal several sheets from a prescription pad, he said. Others will photocopy a valid prescription and then make copies, changing dates.
When a pharmacist or a doctor becomes suspicious about a prescription they report their concerns to authorities.
Westmoreland said about half the drug cases he gets from the Davis Metro Narcotics Strike Force involve the illegal use of prescription drugs.
Dr. Virgil Keate, a psychologist with Davis Behavioral Health, Inc., said a significant number of those seeking help are addicted to prescription drugs.
Keate said those seeking help for their addiction get involved in individual, group and family therapy.
But like any other drug addiction, it's difficult for the person to quit, he said.
"It is really hard, because it is a physical and a psychological addiction," Keate said.
The prescription drug does not discriminate either. Those addicted come from every walk of life, age, religion and socioeconomic group, he said.
Weber-Morgan Metro Narcotics Strike Force Agent Nate Jensen investigates prescription fraud cases. His agency averages 75 to 100 cases a year.
"Most of the time they're keeping it a secret," Jensen said. "Their loved ones don't know about it, and many are just waiting to get caught so they can get help."
Jensen said it is common for a person to call his office to report they suspect a loved one is abusing prescription pills.
Many police agencies have installed drop boxes for residents to dispose of unwanted, expired or unused prescription medications.
"This program has been very helpful, because it gets drugs out of homes, so they don't get stolen or abused," Jensen said.
For more tips on how to prevent prescription medication abuse, go to www.useonlyasdirected.org.
To discard medications
Drop boxes for unused, unwanted and expired prescriptions are available at all police agencies, except Clearfield, in Davis and Weber counties.
Morgan County Sheriff's Office and the Brigham and Tremonton police agencies have drop boxes available also.