Colorado has the second-highest rate of prescription-painkiller abuse in the nation, according to a new federal report, boosting the urgency of various state efforts to curb rampant overuse of the pills.Six percent of Coloradans said they used prescription painkillers — such as Percocet or Oxycontin — for nonmedical purposes in 2010 and 2011, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. That was second only to Oregon, where the rate was 6.37 percent.Iowa had the lowest abuse rate, about 3.62 percent among people over the age of 12. Among people age 18-25, Colorado's misuse rate for the painkillers was a much-higher 14 percent of the population.Seven of the 10 worst states were in the West, noted Art Schut, chief executive of the Arapahoe House treatment centers. The number of Arapahoe House clients who named prescription drugs as a problem substance has quintupled in the past six years, Schut said.The painkillers are everywhere, and many clients assume they are relatively safe because they are pure, come from a medical source and have legitimate uses, he said."It's hard to get around the idea that all medicine is good for you," he said. Once people get addicted, they increase their dosage, then look for cheaper sources of high, Schut said. "It's a very dangerous, slippery slope."State policy and health leaders are working on various fronts to stem the flow of painkillers, with prescriptions quadrupling in a decade as doctors moved to treat chronic pain directly rather than dismiss it as a symptom. The opiate-based pills are highly addictive, and the mass increase in their prescription opens them to misuse or theft by family members, addicts and dealers. Law enforcement and treatment experts also have seen an increase in young addicts switching from painkillers to cheaper heroin. Overdose deaths are rising in parallel with prescriptions.
"There's not one solution," said Laurie Lovedale of the state Division of Behavioral Health, who is advising Gov. John Hickenlooper about prescription drug policy. Hickenlooper co-chairs a task force on pain-pill abuse at the National Governors Association, and the group expects a report on policy changes by the end of February, Lovedale said.Answers must include a combination of doctor education on how the pills are being abused, greater use of a state prescription database to identify at-risk patients, and better disposal methods for leftover pills, Lovedale said.Massachusetts, for example, requires doctors to take pain management and opiate courses to renew their licensure, she said.State officials also support efforts by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to change rules to allow pharmacies to accept leftover medicine for destruction. Currently they can't, and law enforcement instead conducts periodic "takeback" days to accept prescription drugs.If there is good news in the report by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, it is that rates of pill misuse have leveled off in Colorado and most states. Colorado's abuse rate dropped slightly from 6.23 percent in 2009 and 2010, although it rose among 12- to 17-year-olds and 18- to 25-year-olds.