ST. GEORGE — Utah has a secret side to it. According to a variety of sources, Utahns are known to be among the happiest in the nation, to largely abstain from alcohol abuse and tobacco use and rank among the lowest use for illicit drug use in the country. Yet the Beehive State has one of the highest rates of prescription drug abuse in the U.S.
On average, 21 Utahns die from prescription drug overdoses every month, according to the Utah Department of Health. The rate of prescription drug overdoses has increased by 400 percent in the last decade. Utah ranks fifth in the nation in prescription drug overdoses. In recent years, the rate of drug overdose deaths in Utah exceeds the rate of motor vehicle accident deaths.
Will Allphin’s story
Will Allphin knows firsthand how devastating an addiction to prescription drugs can be. He has seen it and he has lived it. Allphin used to work in the aerospace industry, but a back injury brought him his first taste of painkillers, and led him down the path to near-ruin, one that would derail a promising career.
“I had back surgery and was given more pills but the back surgery was immediately successful as far as alleviating the pain and numbness,” Allphin said.
His physical suffering was gone, but his brain began manufacturing pain because it liked the way the pills made him feel.
The downward spiral had begun, Allphin said. He began doctor shopping, illegally purchasing pills and even broke into his doctor’s office to steal medicine, which led to his arrest.
But even his arrest could not stop his descent.
“I found a doctor who was an addict himself, who was dirty and I was able to get progressively harder and harder prescription drugs, up to the point of pretty much the strongest that were available at the time,” Allphin said, identifying those as Oxycontin and MS Contin, the morphine equivalent.
Eventually Allphin stopped trying to procure drugs through doctors and began buying them from drug dealers and ordering them online. He stole pills from friends and family members.
“Anybody who would invite me into their house … I would find an excuse to go look in their medicine cabinet. Eventually, in my case, it led me to street drugs,” Allphin said.
National and statewide epidemic
The issue has been noticed on a nationwide level.
White House Deputy Drug Policy Director Michael Botticelli addressed the issue during a press conference on a 2014 visit to Salt Lake City.
“From the perspective of the White House, I think we know clearly that we can’t continue to arrest our way out of the problem, that we have to deal with addiction from a public health standpoint,” Botticelli said.
Journalist Lisa Ling devoted a segment of her show “This is Life” to the Utah epidemic.
“It’s a national epidemic, but our state is fifth in the nation actually for highest drug overdoses. It’s a very big problem here,” Angela Stander, prescription drug overdose prevention coordinator for the Utah Department of Health, said.
There are multiple roots to the problem, Stander said. One of those issues is that people do not believe they are using their prescriptions illicitly when they are in fact deviating from the intended use.
“Any time someone uses it not as prescribed, takes more, shares … it’s considered abuse and misuse,” Stander said. “Because prescription drugs are so expensive, a common thing is it leads to heroin addiction.”
Because the price of heroin is so low, Stander said a lot more suburban, middle-class people are getting addicted to it.
There is a perception among prescription abusers that because a doctor writes a prescription it makes the misuse of these drugs more socially acceptable, Stander said.
“People aren’t seeing it … that they’re addicts, that they’re abusing the drug and using it illicitly because it is prescribed by a doctor,” she said.
Dr. Craig Georgianna, clinical director at Therapia – an addiction healing center located in St. George – said that the feeling of numbness, on both a physical and an emotional level is a powerfully compelling quality, one that can drive anyone into addiction.
“Any type of narcotic that you take numbs the individual and it numbs their emotions, it numbs their … physical pain … it numbs everything about them,”Georgianna said. “And the problem is, it feels good.”
It feels good to be numbed, and it feels good not have to deal with that physical pain that you have. What then begins to happen is the feeling of being numb becomes actually the drive to seek more drugs, to take them longer or a larger amount than was … initially prescribed. Then at that point the addiction process starts to take place. When you’re numbing, your ability to make really good choices and decisions is also significantly affected.
Eventually Allphin began using fentanyl patches, Lortab, muscle relaxants and heroin — all at the same time.
“I just spiraled,” Allphin said. “I was an aerospace engineer for 20 years, my addiction took me out of that field.”
Multiple attempts to return to the aerospace industry brought on a level of stress that inevitably triggered the need for narcotics.
It always started, Allphin said, with him going to the doctor thinking he could do it differently and control it – just a muscle relaxer or a Lortab here or there. It always ended, he said, with him out of work, out of a family and in handcuffs.
“It was always pretty catastrophic for me,” he said.
Eventually, his drug addiction led Allphin to homelessness.
“I was working as a lab manager at a major firm in Salt Lake, but I was living in my truck because my ex-wife had kicked me out,” Allphin said. “It’s November – December in Salt Lake, I’m parking my truck a half-mile away from where I work. I’m using street drugs several times a day and thinking it’s normal … it just started with a couple pills, I’m just treating the pain.”
A socially-acceptable road to addiction
Historically two things happen, David Heaton, public information officer for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, said. On the one side, people get dependent, addicted and take more or try to get more than they really need. On the other side, physicians – who of course want to help people be relieved of pain, he said – may be too liberal in their prescribing.
There is some truth to the thought that a prescription is a socially-acceptable means of acquiring drugs, Heaton said.
“Any law-abiding citizen is going to have a much easier time taking a prescription even with powerful side-effects and some risk if it’s legally prescribed rather than going out on the street. That’s definitely an issue,” Heaton said.
Rising death rates
In the past several decades, the number of drug deaths has risen dramatically in Southwest Utah.
“About 15 years ago in our district we had about 10 deaths that year. That’s gone up to where in recent years it’s been three times that, so over 30 deaths per year,” Heaton said. “It’s a rising trend and we do match the state’s rate, which is above the national average.”
“People should be more alarmed than they are,” Stander said.
Impact on law enforcement
St. George Police Sgt. Sam Despain said prescription drug abuse is a very real problem law enforcement deals with on a regular basis.
“We have a detective whose primary purpose is to deal with prescription drug-related crimes,” Despain said. “It certainly is prevalent.”
It is true, Despain said, that the typical abuser of prescription drugs is generally not the stereotypical user most people think of.
“Nobody’s immune, it can happen to anybody,” he said.
Using education to break the cycle
Every person interviewed for this report agreed that education is one of the most important ingredients in slowing the epidemic.
“It’s a collaboration. Not just law enforcement needs to be involved but also doctors, patients, providers, those that educate doctors. Also the prevention and public awareness … in community education,” Stander said.
Education should be targeted at junior high and high school students, Georgianna said, before they have had an opportunity to get hooked.
Education is important, Allphin said, but it cannot stop at the general population. Doctors, too, need to be educated and taught alternatives to simply prescribing powerful narcotics. There are many non-narcotic options that work just as well if not better than opioids and opiates, he said.
Eventually Allphin was able to break his habit. A combination of the 12-Step recovery programs, his deep faith and an unflinching introspection of his own motivations and feelings allowed him to break the cycle and live a drug-free life. He now works as a Men’s Program Supervisor at Therapia.
“(I’m) always looking at what I do, looking at my part, taking ownership for it and just being honest about feelings,” Allphin said.
In a few months, Allphin said, he will be reaching another important sobriety date:
“God-willing it will be seven years in May,” he said.
Addiction help in Washington County
- Al-Anon of St. George Jennifer J. at 435-862-5643 or Sherry at 435-669-6027
- Counseling Services of Southern Utah (435) 673-2822
- Lion’s Gate Recovery (faith-based drug and alcohol recovery) (866) 471-9476
- Narcotics Anonymous Southern Utah (435) 467-4403
- Southwest Behavioral Health Center (435) 634-5600
- Steps Recovery Center (801) 465-5111
- Therapia Addiction Healing Center 1-855-652-HEAL (4325)
- Turningleaf Wellness Center (435) 652-1202
- Warning signs of prescription drug abuse from the Mayo Clinic
- SAMHSA National Survey on Drug Use and Health
- Utah Department of Health webpage on prescription drug overdoses
- Opioid overdose prevention toolkit from SAMHSA
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.