A Prescribed Addiction, Part 2 - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

A Prescribed Addiction, Part 2

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

A film flickers with images of a happier time; of an ordinary New England family.

"A successful ski racer is a hair's breadth away from disaster all the time," Skip Gates said. "That's how they win."

Gates' son was a winner. Will was studying genetics at UVM while pursuing a promising future in ski racing.

"To ski with him, you were almost taking your life in your own hands," Gates said. "He just wasn't ever afraid. I believe this was one more limit to push."

The images are part of a documentary called "The Opiate Effect" served up to the public as a warning.

"Heroin took the life of my 21 year old son Will," Gates said. "He was a kid I often describe as the last kid you'd ever expect to get involved with heroin."

"It's a much more dangerous time to be a kid," said Tristram Coffin, the U.S. Attorney for Vermont. "There's a lot more dangerous stuff that will kill you deader than dead or lead to a lifetime of addiction right at your fingertips."

It's a warning the state's federal prosecutor says is supported by the numbers: 3 percent of Vermont high school kids have tried heroin. But four times as many admit to using someone else's prescription drugs to get high. Will was no different.

"Will used Oxys before he used heroin," Skip Gates said. "It's still hard for me to believe how he would take those kinds of chances."

In the early 2000s, Vermont's heroin problem was running rampant until police aggressively cracked down on dealers and the state built its first methadone treatment clinic. But now police say heroin's hooked a new generation of addicts; a comeback fueled by prescription drugs.

"We're now seeing kids starting using heroin at a younger age and I think the reason for that is the pills that are accessible, many times in their own homes," Vt. State Police Capt. Glenn Hall said.

Two-thousand medical professionals in Vermont are licensed to prescribe pain medication and the amount they prescribe keeps rising. Last year, they wrote about 165,000 prescriptions Vicodin, 87,000 for Percocet and 68,000 for OxyContin. That translates to 30,000 more painkiller prescriptions floating around than the year before.

Reporter Jennifer Reading: How responsible is the medical community for this growing epidemic?

Dr. Stephen Leffler/FAHC Chief Medical Officer: We play some role in this. And we have to do a better job making sure we give these medications appropriately to the right patients and get anyone who can get off them, off them.

Doctors say they frequently find themselves in a bind. They're federally mandated to alleviate pain when patients present with symptoms. But they're also aware of the growing number of people seeking pain pills for the wrong reasons.

"It's not easy," Leffler said. "A lot of doctors oftentimes will take the position if I'm not sure, I want to make sure I'm not sending someone home who's suffering. So they will go ahead and give them medications.

The medical community says it is trying to avoid pill diversion. Many are participating in the state's prescription monitoring system-- an online tool that allows doctors and pharmacists to track where patients are getting their pain pills. Others are asking patients to sign pain management contracts and submit to random pill counts. Fletcher Allen has stopped refilling pain medications over the phone and the emergency room won't give out OxyContin.

"The reality is you have a lot of individuals who are seeking drugs," said Bob Bick, who heads mental health and substance abuse services at the HowardCenter, one of the state's busiest drug treatment facilities.

Bick says opiate addiction-- whether it's pills or heroin-- has become an epidemic in the Green Mountains.

"This is a home-grown problem and it affects all socioeconomic groups; professionals, technical people, unemployed people, homeless people," Bick said.

Forty-three drug-related deaths in Vermont were linked to prescription painkillers last year. That accounts for nearly half of all the state's fatal overdoses. Unlike alcohol and other drugs, the treatment numbers continue to rise for prescription opiates. Fifteen times more people are being treated compared to a decade ago. One in seven babies at Rutland Regional Medical Center is born to opiate addicted moms. And Vermont's busiest syringe exchange program handed out 550,000 needles last year-- that's about a 40 percent jump from the year before.

Jennifer Reading: What does that rising number say to you?

Bob Bick: I think it's clear that the opiate addiction problem in Vermont is growing.

And it's a trend Skip Gates wished he knew about before his son became another statistic.

"When I would ask him if he was doing anything heavy, I must have asked him a hundred times, he would tell me: Dad, I'm a scientist. I study this stuff. You worry too much. Relax," Gates said.

Now a father is left sharing his story that he warns could easily become any parent's nightmare.

"This doesn't always happen to someone else," Gates said. "The unexpected death of a child I believe is the worst event in human experience... It never leaves me. It's been 1,044 days today and it will be with me to the day I die."

The U.S. Attorney for Vermont is now working with the creator of "The Opiate Effect" to get the film into every Vermont high school.

Related Stories:

A Prescribed Addiction, Part 1

A Prescribed Addiction, Part 3

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