Property crimes linked to rise in painkiller abuse
Posted July 16, 2013
Fayetteville, N.C. — Thieves kicked in James Maultsby’s door while he was at the grocery store.
Maultsby, who was recovering from neck surgery, had not left his west Fayetteville home for nearly a week before that quick trip to Food Lion in November.
The thieves ransacked the place, seemingly taking anything they could sell: Maultsby’s bedroom TV, two computers, an iPad and two watches.
But none of those items likely fetched more money than two of the multiple prescription drugs the thieves took from his bedroom and bathroom: between 100 and 150 oxycodone tablets and about a half dozen skin patches called Fentanyl, an opiate painkiller that people have learned to abuse in a variety of ways.
The break-in was among 403 crimes reported to Fayetteville police last year that were directly tied to prescription drugs — more than one a day.
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And that’s only a sliver of the overall crime problem attributed to the prescription painkiller epidemic on the city’s streets.
The problem is not unique to Fayetteville — cities and towns across America face similar challenges — but it is intensified here in large part because of the amount of painkillers prescribed to wounded soldiers and veterans.
Federal Drug Enforcement Administration records show that more oxycodone is sold in the Fayetteville region than anywhere else in North Carolina.
Many of those painkillers are finding their way to the city’s black market, often by thieves breaking into homes and stealing them or by people who get prescriptions filled by multiple doctors, then sell the pills they don’t use themselves.
Cumberland County District Attorney Billy West said painkillers are becoming the largest problem drug in the Fayetteville area — overtaking cocaine.
It is impossible to know precisely how many property crimes have been committed by people trying to steal something to sell for drug money. Break-ins and forgery, for instance, are not automatically flagged if they involve prescription drugs, and the city’s crime statistics do not count complaints that police have not had time to investigate.
But there is no denying that painkiller abuse contributed to Fayetteville having the fifth-highest property crime rate in the country in 2012, more than double the national average.
“It’s rampant,” said police Detective Sheila Valdez, the lead investigator for the department’s prescription drug unit. “The profit margin on selling pills is so huge, especially if you have insurance.”
Prescription painkillers, which are sometimes crushed and snorted or injected to create a more potent high, are commonly found by police in drug busts alongside caches of cocaine, marijuana and heroin.
In May, lawmen raided a Fayetteville house that contained stolen property from four counties. People were allegedly breaking into homes and exchanging their haul for pain pills. Moore County sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Jesse Stubbs said 26-year-old Brian Godfrey, who was arrested in the May raid, admitted breaking into the houses to help feed his painkiller addiction.
It happens time and time again, Stubbs said. Usually, the addicts start taking painkillers for a legitimate injury and spiral out of control, he said.
“In Moore County, it’s common knowledge at the Sheriff’s Office that when people break into a house, the majority of the time they’re breaking in to get these pills,” Stubbs said. “You rarely have a (break-in) to a house and the medicine cabinet has not been rummaged through.”
Painkillers typically sell for a dollar a milligram on the streets, so the
5-milligram oxycodone tablets taken from Maultsby could have been flipped for $500 to $750.
Valdez has been the Fayetteville Police Department’s only detective for prescription-related crime for most of the past six years.
During that time, Valdez said, complaints have come in far faster than she can investigate them. She does a quick, conservative estimate of her backlog of cases — 12 a month for six years — and comes up with 864.
“That shows how many I’m in the hole, and that’s being nice,” Valdez said.
The Fayetteville Police Department added a detective to its prescription crime team last year and initially had the green light to hire two more. But last-minute cuts to the city budget mean the Police Department will not be adding any new positions this year, a spokesman said.
Even a four-person team, Valdez said, would not have been able to handle the caseload.
Other initiatives have been introduced. Police no longer allow people to report stolen drugs over the phone, Valdez said, because some people file a false report so they can use it to obtain replacement drugs from their doctors.
And, as Maultsby found out, the Department of Veterans Affairs now refuses to refill prescriptions for stolen opiate pain pills, regardless of whether the report is true.
The break-in has left Maultsby spooked. He said he does not leave home without his medicine, even if he’s taking out the trash.
“I’m very cautious,” he said. “It’s changed me, and I don’t like that.”
Many people involved in illegal painkiller crimes are both users and sellers, Valdez said. Some work in groups to get as many prescriptions from as many doctors as possible, she said.
An undercover detective with the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office said painkillers are driving crime all over the county. For years, the county saw a need for a detective focused on prescription crimes, the detective said, but because of budget constraints it did not have one until the end of last year.
A pill ring that had operated out of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Cumberland County’s largest employer, demonstrates just how pervasive the problem is here. In 2010, undercover deputies arrested 15 workers at Goodyear on charges of selling prescription painkillers and other drugs.
The county detective said a lot of pills from the Fayetteville VA hospital on Ramsey Street are sold by veterans. Sometimes, he said, veterans will walk from the hospital to a nearby gas station to sell their painkillers.
Many are older and living on fixed incomes, he said.
“They’re doing anything they can to make ends meet, which means the elderly people are selling their pills to supplement their incomes to survive, basically,” the undercover detective said. “You’re seeing good people have to resort to bad things to have to make ends meet.”
A retired Fayetteville veteran who requested anonymity said he has been supplementing his income for about six years by selling the pills he gets from the VA for knee and back pain.
The veteran said he uses about 20 Vicodin a month to control his pain and sells everything else to a man he has known for years. The man pays him more than $1,000 a month, the veteran said. He said he has “no idea” what happens to the pills after that.
Every three months, the veteran is required to go back to the VA, where he said he is usually seen by a physician assistant who does nothing more than fill out a new prescription for the same pain pills. He said there is no physical examination, no urinalysis or blood sample to test him for addiction, and no questions about why he still needs the medications. Most days, the veteran said, he could get by with high-strength ibuprofen.
“They give me medication that I have no need for whatsoever,” he said. “I shouldn’t be receiving the medicine I receive, but no one says that I don’t need it.”
He said the VA has classified him as having a service-connected disability for a disease he contracted in the jungles of Vietnam. But the VA steadfastly refuses to compensate him for the ailment, he said.
As he sees it, the money he gets for the pills justifies the lack of compensation for his disease.
“I use them like they used me,” he said.
Elizabeth Goolsby, director of the Fayetteville VA hospital, said through a spokeswoman that she believes the VA’s contracts with patients on the use of painkillers have been effective at deterring misuse.
“It has been suggested that some veterans are not using their pain medications as prescribed,” Goolsby said. “While there will always be some who will violate the contract, once identified, we take the appropriate actions, which may include discontinuing the prescription.”
Doctors with the VA and the military write thousands of prescriptions for painkillers each year.
Civilian doctors — from family practitioners to pain specialists — add to the total.
Too often, detectives say, it is in these medical offices that the seeds of addiction are planted. The results can spill into the streets.
People start out taking painkillers after a car wreck or injury and spiral into addiction because they have had a long-term prescription.
Injuries are often made worse because people who do manual labor take the painkillers so they can keep doing the same work that caused the pain in the first place.
“In the beginning, it can be just completely innocent,” the undercover county detective said. “People get hooked on this stuff, and they can’t get off of it.”
People such as Ashley Gibson, who took Vicodin prescribed by his doctor for years to mask the pain of two bulging disks and arthritis in his neck, shoulders and back.
The pills allowed him to work through the pain. But Gibson said he soon found he needed more and more to get the same level of relief. The pills dulled his pain but did not heal his injuries.
He said he would often take some of his father’s pain pills in addition to his own to get through the month. Most people who report misusing pain medications say they got them free from a friend or family member, a nearly impossible scenario for police to catch.
When Gibson’s doctor closed shop, the next doctor he saw cut his prescription off after a drug test showed elevated painkiller levels.
“That’s when I came back to Fayetteville and started buying them straight off the streets,” Gibson said. “You can pretty much get them from anywhere.”
Eventually, Gibson said, he was so hooked on pills he could not get out of bed without crushing and snorting three Percocets.
Gibson sold some of his dad’s pain medicine and made up lies to persuade friends and family members to let him borrow money from them.
“Whatever can get you a dollar, you’re going to say it,” Gibson said. “It wasn’t the real me. It was my addiction making me do what I had to do to get what I had to get.”
It wasn’t until Gibson could not find work and had ruined relationships with his friends and family that he began trying to stop.
Terri Rose, executive director of the Myrover-Reese Fellowship Home, a halfway house for recovering addicts and homeless veterans where Gibson sought help, said it is an all-too-common story.
By the time people are ready to stop, they have severely damaged their closest relationships and have nowhere else to turn.
Rose said the cycle of addiction and crime is worse here because the Fayetteville area lacks options for people who want help.
“If you can’t afford treatment, you’re forced to buy them on the street,” she said. “When you think about one person being strung out on pain pills, he might be getting pain pills over here from the veteran guy, he might be doing methadone maintenance over here and might be going to the pain management clinic and might toot a little heroin if he has to,” Rose said.
Heroin, an opiate drug like prescription painkillers, is gaining popularity as a cheaper substitute for desperate addicts
Pastor James Sizemore drove around Fayetteville nine years ago looking for a place to start a church. Sizemore wanted a location where he could help people who really needed it, people struggling through poverty or addiction. He settled in Massey Hill.
Back then, the drug doing the most damage was crack cocaine. No more, Sizemore said.
“While people still do crack, it’s nothing in comparison to the pill problem,” he said. “I could walk across the street right now and buy a Percocet for $10 or Oxycontin for $30.”
Everyone is welcome at Sizemore’s small storefront church on Gillespie Street, including people hooked on painkillers. Sizemore says he has tried to find help for nearly 1,000 pain pill addicts since he opened the church. He encounters families in which painkiller abuse spans four generations, from grandmother to grandchild.
Every addict he has met, Sizemore says, eventually begins breaking the law in some way because of the addiction.
Sizemore said he has known people who stole food or other items so they could spend money on pills. Others have returned health products to a drugstore with no receipt in exchange for a gift card they could use to help pay for pills at the pharmacy.
Those types of behaviors, along with property crimes, go hand in hand with addiction.
The answer to the problem is not as simple as tighter restrictions on painkillers. If people who are already hooked on opiates are suddenly cut off, Sizemore said, Fayetteville would see an explosion in the number of heroin addicts. The cycle of crime and addiction would continue, just with a more dangerous drug.
Either way, Fayetteville is poorly equipped to help. Its treatment centers and services for recovering addicts frequently turn people away because there is not enough space, sending them back into the community where they keep using pills and committing crimes to get them if necessary.