Raleigh, N.C. — Mention drug abuse or overdose and many people think of meth labs, cocaine trafficking and marijuana seizures. However, in North Carolina, doctor-prescribed painkillers have become more deadly than illegal drugs.
Prescription overdoses have tripled over the past decade and represent the nation's leading accidental killer, outpacing car crashes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Painkillers, such as Oxycontin, Vicodin and methadone, contributed to the deaths of nearly 15,000 people in the U.S. in 2008 – more than three times the 4,000 deaths in 1999. The number of overdose deaths is now greater than the total deaths from heroin and cocaine combined, according to the CDC.
North Carolina is on track to once again surpass 1,000 prescription overdose deaths this year, according to North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper.
“We see more people dying from this problem than we do from all of the other drugs combined,” he said.
Nearly 5 percent of Americans ages 12 and older say they've abused prescription painkillers, according to the CDC. The highest rate of abuse was reported in Oklahoma, while the lowest was in Nebraska and Iowa.
Certain groups are more likely to abuse or overdose on prescription painkillers, according to the CDC:
- More men than women die of overdoses from prescription painkillers.
- Middle-aged adults have the highest rate of prescription painkiller overdoses.
- People in rural counties are nearly twice as likely to overdose on prescription painkillers as people in big cities.
- Whites and American Indian or Alaska Natives are more likely to overdose on prescription painkillers
- About 1 in 10 American Indian or Alaska Natives aged 12 or older used prescription painkillers for non-medical reasons in the past year, compared with 1 in 20 whites and 1 in 30 blacks.
Unlike illegal street drugs, prescription medications are often seen as safe, even outside a doctor's care.
Husband: ‘I knew she was gone’
Lisa Angeles’ addiction to Percocet didn't kill her, but it did lead to a death sentence for someone else.
She says her addiction began in 2009 after a truck hit her as she walked along a road in Johnston County. She spent two months in the hospital, where she was given pain medication, including Percocet.
“It made me feel good, and I was energetic,” Angeles said. “I had energy. The pills made me not think about my problems, and when I didn’t have (the pills), I wouldn’t have energy.”
When her Percocet prescription ran out, she called her doctor and asked for more.
“The more I got addicted, I started popping them in the morning,” she said. “I'd pop four of them … Then, (at) lunchtime, I'd pop more.”
After multiple requests for the pain pills, her doctor suggested she go to drug rehab classes.
“I didn’t go to him anymore,” she said.
Angeles was heavily medicated and driving in April 2010 when she crossed the center line of U.S. Highway 301 near Benson and crashed into a car carrying Troy Mitchell and his wife, Elizabeth “Beth” Ann Mitchell, of Selma.
Troy Mitchell, who was driving, suffered a broken hip. His 24-year-old wife died at the scene.
“I do remember looking over there and calling her two or three times and her not even communicating to me, and I did see her chest go in, go back out, and that was it. I knew she was gone,” he said in an April 2010 interview.
Angeles was not injured in the crash. She is serving three to four years in the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh.
“Everyday, I think about that,” said Angeles, who admits her prescription drug abuse caused the crash.
SBI agent: ‘It is the No. 1 drug problem’
Donnie Varnell, who leads the State Bureau of Investigation’s Diversion and Environmental Crimes Unit, says he doesn’t think the public comprehends the seriousness of prescription drug abuse.
“It is the No. 1 drug problem in the nation, and it’s also the No. 1 drug problem in North Carolina,” he said.
Varnell’s team at the SBI focuses on legal drugs diverted for illegal use.
"In one five-year period, we had a 400 percent increase in cases. We had no extra agents working the cases, and, as a matter of fact, we were down an agent from a lost position. Our cases were skyrocketing, and the local (authorities) were seeing the same thing."
Fuquay-Varina police Detective Jeff Wenhart showed the WRAL Investigates team a surveillance video taken at a local pharmacy. In it, a man can be seen getting a prescription, which authorities say he obtained under fraudulent circumstances. The surveillance video is part of a million-dollar drug ring case.
Time after time, Brandon Bowles, who went by several aliases, passed off fraudulent methadone and oxycodone prescriptions at area pharmacies using real doctors’ names and Drug Enforcement Administration license numbers.
During a one-year period, members of the ring passed fake prescriptions in Fuquay-Varina, Knightdale, Cary, Raleigh, Garner, Morrisville, Wake Forest and Rolesville. The fake prescriptions were also passed in 34 other cities across the state.
Wenhart says prescriptions can sell for anywhere from $5 to $80 per pill on the street. The multi-state scheme was choreographed with not only detailed forged prescriptions, but even lookouts, according to police. If a pharmacist raised any suspicion, the buyers bolted.
“He was out. He literally ran out the door of the pharmacy,” Wenhart said, describing one surveillance video.
Attorney general: ‘Prescription drug abuse is a silent killer’
For the youngest users, access to the drugs isn't about defrauding drug stores. Law enforcement estimates up to 75 percent of underage prescription drug use comes from swiping pills from parents' or friends' medicine cabinets.
“They don’t go to the doctor to get their pills. They get it from their friends, or they’ll go to their own house, their own medicine cabinets, and get the pills out that way and share them or sell them,” Varnell said.
Harry Cohen, a quarterback at Williams High School in Burlington, died in August after taking his grandmother's methadone, according to authorities.
People often get the prescribed painkillers by stealing them or using fraudulent methods.
In Person County, the SBI recently arrested registered nurse Haley Scearce, 35, of Roxboro. She's charged with stealing the painkiller morphine from Person Memorial Hospital, where she worked in 2009. She lost her job and her nursing license. Her family says she simply forgot the vial was in her pocket.
In addition to prescription drug abuse, authorities say doctor shopping, or visiting numerous physicians to find one who will prescribe medications, is also on the rise.
Kelly Benson, 33, a former Johnston County deputy clerk of court, is charged with defrauding doctors to get oxycodone.
In Wake County, Marshall Powers is charged with visiting 43 unsuspecting doctors to get 90 hydrocodone prescriptions in a little more than a year.
Varnell, with the SBI, says doctor shopping can go on for a long time before law enforcement or the regulatory boards become aware of it.
Investigators say addiction, profit and easy access fuel the prescription drug problem. It's a problem soaking up more law enforcement time and resources, but it's often hard to convey to the public. Most people typically view the medication as safe because it’s doctor-prescribed or from a trusted pharmacy.
“Prescription drug abuse is a silent killer,” Cooper said.
The state currently has a database that allows medical professionals to confidentially share prescription information to try to stop doctor-shopping, but not everyone uses it.
A state law that goes into effect next year will require a photo ID anytime someone picks up a narcotic from a pharmacy. Pharmacies will have to keep those records for three years, but they won't be required to submit the information to the database.