WRAL Investigates

Most deadly drug in NC? Prescription painkillers

Posted November 7, 2011

— 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.

Prescription painkillers Most deadly drug in NC?

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.


This story is closed for comments.

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  • forumowner Nov 10, 2011

    Clearly the profit motive of Big Pharma is not to make you healthy, as that would decrease profits.

    Does that make sense to you guys?

  • Daria Nov 9, 2011

    I really hate to see these kinds of articles because it scares doctors from prescribing adequate pain medication to those who really need it. Doctors have started to treat everyone like an addict and make patients feel like a criminal for needing pain medication. These medications play an important role in pain management but like anything else can be abused.

  • Follow_The_Money27617 Nov 9, 2011

    1st off how did a story about "prescription pain pills" turn into tons of comments about "legalizing marijuana" This isn't a story about pot, pot heads! WRAL I have to just express the overall sentiment of MANY people, your so called WRAL INVESTIGATES TEAM IS WORTHLESS!! I hope Herman Cain sends all of yall a copy of the JOURNALIST ETHICS! Cause none of yall follow them!
    November 8, 2011 5:48 p.m.

    Because the drugs that kill you are legal and the plant that cannot kill you is illegal? LOL how hard was that to figure out?

  • fayncmike Nov 9, 2011

    "As far as people's behavior while high goes, it is if anything calmer and safer.

    this is simply not true, no credibility going on here. You might as well believe in the tooth fairy.

    Of course it's true. Stop watching, "Reefer Madness" and accept reality.

  • batcave Nov 9, 2011

    As far as people's behavior while high goes, it is if anything calmer and safer.

    this is simply not true, no credibility going on here. You might as well believe in the tooth fairy.

  • redruby Nov 8, 2011

    Well I have chronic pain and don't take anything for pain right now! I have 2 herniated disc in my low back, a bulging disc in my neck, and major pain in my right hip that they say is due to disc one trip and arthritis the next. Physical therapy has always made things worse for me!!! The pain med's just hide the problems for a little while and more than anything the side effects are just as bad as the pain!!! For me it has been hard to find a pain med that works, so I have dealt with it for some time. I get down on some days because the pain is so bad and surgery will be the last resort for me. I haven't found a friend/patience that has really found much relief in surgery. They still have to take pain med's??? Anyway, it's sad that people abuse the system with deceit and others get in a since of hopelessness that they take more than they should. I just wish there were more groups/funds available to help people like these that abuse the system and/or can't get help!

  • asjdiw Nov 8, 2011

    This started about 10 years ago with an initiative to give patients with severe pain the medicines they needed to deal with it. A variety of medical organizations and regulatory agencies all started a push to "adequately" deal with pain, which resulted in us reaching this point. It is incredibly easy to get narcotic pain pills right now, even for chronic pain, despite good evidence that this is NOT the most effective way to manage it. I really hope this leads to more rationale pain management strategies and less automatic prescription of meds.

  • kodac31 Nov 8, 2011

    1st off how did a story about "prescription pain pills" turn into tons of comments about "legalizing marijuana" This isn't a story about pot, pot heads!
    WRAL I have to just express the overall sentiment of MANY people, your so called WRAL INVESTIGATES TEAM IS WORTHLESS!! I hope Herman Cain sends all of yall a copy of the JOURNALIST ETHICS! Cause none of yall follow them!

  • fayncmike Nov 8, 2011

    I find it amusing that there were so many comments just because one poster misunderstood how the word seizure was used. Of course there is no such thing as a pot induced seizure. Let's just say that the person who claimed her daughter had a pot induced seizure is simply mistaken and not something worse.

    As far as people's behavior while high goes, it is if anything calmer and safer. Certainly not the reckless uncontrolled behavior of a drunk. I remember going to concerts when the really big rock bands like ELO, ELP, The Dead and so on were in their heyday. Even in the biggest venues like Madison Square Garden and the Nassau Coliseum the air was thick with pot smoke. Even if one didn't bring anything it didn't matter because hundreds of joints were being passed around the audience. There were no fights, no wrecked cars no one laying passed out. If anything people were driving a lot more slowly and carefully due in part to the mild paranoia the herb brings on.

  • kodac31 Nov 8, 2011

    @ Rebelyell55---
    Your first comment you posted to this story on November 7th, 2011 at 6:22p.m. WAS ABSOLUTELY PERFECTLY STATED AND FACTUALLY ON THE MONEY! Well said Sir!