(NaturalNews) Prescription drug abuse is emerging as the new face of the U.S. drug problem, with unscrupulous pharmacists and doctors taking the place of street pushers or other stereotypical visions of the "drug dealer."
Southern Ohio has emerged as a major supplier of illegal prescription drugs, with 74,000-person Scioto County making the Drug Enforcement Agency's list of the 10 top prescription drug trafficking locations in the country. Authorities believe that as many as eight pill mills, where people can easily get prescriptions for painkillers written and filled, may be operating in the tiny county at any one time.
The poverty of the Appalachian region is a major driver of the abuse, and Scioto County's high unemployment rate makes selling prescription drugs an attractive financial option for many desperate residents. Southern Ohio lies strategically near not only the major city of Columbus, but also the high prescription drug-abuse states of Kentucky and West Virginia. Because cross-state drug shipping is hard for authorities to track, the area is an ideal place for pill mills.
Making the problem worse, local officials have a long tradition of looking the other way at the problem, while limited resources make it hard on those few who do wish to tackle the problem.
According to Scioto County sheriffs, the local jails are full of prescription drug abusers and pushers, while in nearby Adams County, the sheriff was recently forced to ship county jail prisoners to confinement in community centers in order to make room for 28 people arrested in a prescription drug bust.
Nearly three million prescriptions for oxycodone painkillers were filled in Ohio in 2008, or almost one for every four residents. An additional 4.8 million prescriptions for hydrocodone painkillers were also filled, or one for every 2.5 residents.
Nationwide, the DEA estimates that the number of people abusing prescription drugs has increased 80 percent in the last decade, to 7 million.
This epidemic comes with a highly visible cost: deaths from prescription drug abuse have increased 280 percent in Ohio over the past 10 years.
"This is crazy, and it has to be stopped," said Ohio activist Barbara Howard, whose daughter Leslie Cooper died of an accidental overdose. "Someone needs to regulate these pain clinics and stop doctors from handing out drugs to people who don't need them.
"People are dying in their living rooms, on their front porches and in their kitchens. And they're dying because they took a pill."
Records show that Cooper had two painkillers, a muscle relaxer and an anxiety drug in her system. She had driven two hours that day in order to fill a prescription at a pill mill.
"Yes, my daughter was an addict," Howard said. "But what kind of doctor keeps giving her prescriptions for hundreds of pills at a time? How do they sleep at night? How do they live with themselves?"
The Ohio pharmacy board complains that police, prosecutors and judges regularly fail to follow up when the board reprimands pharmacists or doctors for illicit prescription practices. Police, meanwhile, say that current laws do not give them the authority to target medical professionals.
Officials like Adams County sheriff Kimmy Rogers have called for new measures to track prescriptions and monitor people convicted of participating in prescription drug abuse. But groups like the Ohio State Medical Association complain that such laws would unfairly burden the vast majority of doctors, who are law-abiding.
"People say you can't do that, or it would take too much money to address the problem," Rogers said. "Well, if we aren't going to spend the money to fight these prescription drugs, then we need to be clear. And we might as well start selling them at yard sales."