"Patients are happy when they get a prescription, and doctors' satisfaction ratings go up. ... If they say no to a patient, then they'll give them a bad rating," Schultz said. "There's a lot of perverse incentives to write a prescription, and that's an unfortunate situation."
Dr. Faris Keeling of Duluth, who specializes in chronic pain for Essentia Health, said when he was in medical school in the 1970s it was considered negligent to give opioid painkillers to any patient who wasn't near death. But over the next decade, a better understanding of addiction developed and doctors began prescribing opioids for cancer patients, finding most could use them without getting addicted.
"As time went on, we asked: Why are we withholding this from people who have chronic pain due to other things? What about people who have severe medical conditions causing chronic pain?" he said. "We started using it some for them."
There have been some sobering results.
The number of Minnesotans who died from prescription opiates was 191 in 2010, compared with 42 a decade earlier, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And the Department of Human Services says the number of Minnesotans seeking treatment for opiate addiction has more than doubled since 2007.
In addition, police say crimes such as burglaries and robberies — either to get drugs or to get items to sell to pay for drugs — are on the rise.
Last week, Cloquet Police Detective Darren Berg flipped through a stack of several dozen burglaries his small department has investigated in the past year. "When we get a burglary, nine times out of 10, people's prescriptions are taken," he said. "Often we're seeing people steal money, jewelry and turn around and buy narcotic drugs."