JENNIFER BYRD Associated Press Writer HELENA
Certain areas of Montana have seen an explosive growth in painkiller sales in recent years, especially in oxycodone-based drugs, which include Oxycontin, a pain reliever that has the potential to become highly addictive. Retail sales of oxycodone increased in Montana by nearly 688 percent from 1997 to 2005, according to an Associated Press analysis of statistics from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The national increase was 604 percent. Across the country, the percentage of people using five major painkillers jumped 88 percent between 1997 and 2005, the analysis found. People in pain collectively bought nearly 200,000 pounds of codeine, morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone and meperidine at retail stores during the most recent year represented in the government’s data enough to give 10-milligrams of painkillers to every man, woman and child in the nation every day, for nearly a year. In the northwest corner of Montana, in an area that includes Kalispell and Whitefish, oxycodone sales increased 1,764 percent and hydrocodone-based drugs, which include Vicodin, increased 205 percent. According to law enforcement, prescription drug abuse has also started to rise in the area. The Northwest Drug Task Force has investigated more than 80 cases of prescription fraud and illegal possession of prescription drugs between 2004 and 2006, said Sgt. Kevin Burns. The task force is made up of agencies throughout Flathead, Lake and Mineral counties and t h e F l a t h e a d I n d i a n Reservation. The majority of those cases invo lved oxyc odone o r hydrocodone, Burns said. The task force added an officer assigned s p e c i f i c a l l y to investigate prescription fraud cases in 2004 after officers working other drug cases found they couldn’t handle the additional case load. “This position has proved to be of great value in combating this problem,” Burns wrote in an e-mail. “This officer communicates with local doctors, pharmacists, and local law enforcement to gather information to make these cases.” Other areas of the state also saw significant increases in the sales of oxycodone from 1997 to 2005. In Billings, there was a 712 percent increase. And in western Montana, in an area that includes Missoula, there was an 887 percent increase. Morphine sales increased statewide with the area including Miles City seeing the biggest jump. Hydrocodone sales went up about 280 percent statewide from 1997 to 2005. Alisha Florence, a diversion investigator with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Montana, said investigations into prescription drug abuse have gone up statewide over the past few years. She said shorter-acting drugs, such as the hydrocodone, are abused more than the longeracting drugs, such as oxycodone and morphine because i t provides a quick high. And hydrocodone is easier for abusers to get because it does not have as many regulations. Florence said sales of oxycodone may have gone up in Montana in part because it’s a newer drug and more doctors are prescribing it.