Drug poisoning deaths plague Iowa, continue to rise

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (KCRG-TV9) - Health officials in Iowa say they’ve seen a nearly 250 percent increase in unintentional poisoning deaths from 2002 until 2014, and many are linked to prescription and illicit drug use.

Photo illustration. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

“The main issues in the state of Iowa are falls and poisonings, and poisonings have virtually doubled in the last decade,” said Dr. James Torner of the Department of Epidemiology in the College of Public Health at the University of Iowa.

According to data from the UI College of Public Health 2,025 Iowans died of unintended poisoning from 2002-2014. Nearly 83 percent of those deaths were tied to drug use.

Torner said one of the biggest battles is with prescription opioids, including drugs like hydrocodone and methadone, the same types of drugs that were linked to the death of former Hawkeye football player, Tyler Sash.

Data from the state department of public health suggests nearly 260 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers are written every year in the United States. Torner said one of the biggest challenges facing society is how to collect the drugs that go unused.

“It’s got to be like pop cans, we got to be able to [collect unused drugs] 24/7, when you finish a prescription that is unused, no matter what it is,” said Torner.

In Johnson County, only the Iowa City Police Department has a 24/7 drug collection drop box, which is located in the lobby of the police department. Other police departments, like North Liberty, take back prescription drugs, but only during business hours. Some departments have no collection system at all. In Linn County, there are several options for disposing of unused drugs.

“We’ve got to come up with a solution,” said Mike Hensch, administrator of the Johnson County Medical Examiner Department.
Hensch called drug take-back programs “hit or miss” in Johnson County. Hensch said it’s not uncommon to find dozens of prescription drugs in the homes of the deceased.

Torner said drug take-back programs and increased monitoring of prescription drug prescribing practices by doctors and pharmacists could provide relief, but noted progress on one problem may lead to increased abuse of illicit drugs like Heroin.

“Heroin is becoming a big deal, it’s becoming the replacement drug for opioids,” said Torner.

According to the Johnson County Medical Examiner eight people died of accidental heroin-related deaths in 2014, four times the average from 2010-2013.

“[Drug abusers] go to different doctors and talk about different ailments that they have and try and get the doctor to give them a prescription and when that fails, then they’ll turn to street drugs like heroin,” said Sgt. Paul Batcheller of the Iowa City Police Department.

Batcheller said recent awareness of heroin related deaths in Johnson County have resulted in an increase focus on combating heroin, as a result just one person has died from a heroin overdose in the county so far this year.

“Unfortunately it usually takes someone dying before we are aware of a certain change or a certain distributor, and oftentimes with those cases we’ll track that backward and try and get to the dealer,” he said.