SHIRLEY — Newspaper headlines proclaiming there’s a drug epidemic, statewide and nationally, or that this country is engaged in a “war on drugs” and losing its battles are right on the mark, according to law enforcement officials, medical practitioners and pharmaceutical experts who track the trend, citing dire statistics and direct experience.
A documented and dramatic uptick in the number and frequency of overdose deaths have trained the spotlight on the dangers of illicit prescription drug use as well as heroin.
Victims range from celebrities with histories of drug abuse and access to drugs of choice to thrill seeking teens pooling resources at “”skittling parties,” where a multi-colored mix of pharmaceuticals, often pilfered from their parents’ medicine chests, are tossed randomly into a bowl to be consumed like candy.
Either way, outcomes can be fatal.
But if such stories are not enough to raise public concern, accounts by police and others on the front line and the testimony of those whose lives have been upended by drug abuse in their families should certainly be enough to spark a national conversation.
That was the gist of the message three guest speakers shared with a small but attentive crowd during a two-hour drug awareness presentation for parents in the Ayer Shirley Regional Middle School auditorium last week.
The event was hosted by Shirley Police Chief Thomas Goulden and Sgt. Alfreda Cromwell.
The guest speakers were Officer Nancy Leedberg of the Brockton Police Dept. who is a community educator for a national program called “NotMYkid,” Chris Shambarger, a registered pharmacist in New Hampshire and a diversion investigator for the state police and Vahrij Manoukian, registered New Hampshire pharmacist and owner of the Hollis Pharmacy. Manoukian is past president of the state pharmacy board, which he helped establish.
Each speaker approached the subject from a different slant but all agreed there’s a pervasive and pernicious drug problem in the United States, with no safe zones.
In the grim picture they painted, potent and dangerous drugs are everywhere, every day. In schools and other public places and our own homes. And anybody’s kids can get them.
Of particular concern, they said, is the proliferation of anti-depressants and painkillers that a doctor prescribes for a patient who then gives or sells the drugs to someone else.
Even when administered by a school nurse, kids can hide and redistribute pills, Leedberg said. And home medicine cabinets can be a rich source for your kids, their friends, or even casual visitors to get their hands on prescription drugs. She recommends keeping them secure and keeping track of supplies. “You might not miss a couple of pills,” she said. And if you no longer need the drugs, get rid of them.
She also recommended talking with kids about drugs sooner rather than later and keeping an eye out for signs and signals that point to a drug problem, list of which are available on line. “Parents must be vigilant,” she said. .
Even teens as young as 13 might have tried drugs, she said, citing the recognized age for first time drug experimentation.
In a memo announcing the event, Goulden stressed that point, noting that families can be devastated when a drug problem hits home and that prevention is the only reliable cure..
Studies show that those who haven’t used illegal drugs by age 21, they likely never will, Goulden stated. “We believe proactive prevention is the answer,” he said.
Sharing drugs is illegal, even when no money exchanges hands, but the prescription pipeline exists and puts more people at risk, Shambarger said.
Under strict new state guidelines administered by the N.H. pharmacy board, duly licensed doctors and pharmacists must enter all controlled substances they prescribe or sell into a computer database and check it before doing so.
The aim is to discourage domestic traffickers operating in plain sight but under the radar.
For example, someone might see several physicians to get the same or similar prescriptions then fill the scripts at multiple pharmacies, Shambarger said. The system flags such duplications, he said.
Accessed only by medical and psychiatric practitioners and pharmacists, the database he and Manoukian mentioned is not shared with police and is not a law enforcement tool, Shambarger said.
Another aspect of increased oversight is that laws in several states, including New Hampshire and Massachusetts, now rule out prescriptions for controlled drugs being called into a pharmacy. Such scripts must be presented in writing and they can’t be refilled.
Shambarger pointed to a case that illustrates why the law was called for: A nurse who was using the drugs for herself called in scripts to a string of stores along the N.H. state highway. She knew the terms and played the system, Shambarger said. But she was caught and her career was ruined.
Manoukian said he and Shamberger travel together, voluntarily taking their message on the road to spread the word about the deadly dangers of prescription drug abuse and the need to tighten restrictions whenever possible. They both called it a national epidemic.
Every day, 46 people die of opiate abuse in the United States,” Manoukian said. “We’re losing this battle.”
Leedberg would agree. Recently in Brockton, there were 22 overdoses in four days, she said.
Alongside sobering statistics that show how elusive and ubiquitous the problem is, Manoukian’s harrowing personal story is doubly compelling.
“It can happen in your family,” he said. “It will happen in your house.”
It happened in his.
Nine years ago, his son Michael died in his arms at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Nashua, NH. “He was the light of my life” and his grandparents’ pride and joy, Manoukian said.
Growing up, Michael had “the best education,” Manoukian said. He attended private schools in Massachusetts, including Applewild and Lawrence Academy.
But as a teenager, “he started to drift,” Manoukian said, sketching how his own life had changed by then. Divorced, with a pharmacy to run, children to bring up and bills to pay, he was working hard and often away from home. “Without … guidance,” Michael “made the wrong choices” for friends, he said.
But he had a passion for Star Wars.
With no interest in his father’s profession, Michael dreamed of making movies like “Star Wars” and chose a college in Florida to pursue a targeted degree. But it was a mistake to send his son there, Manoukian said. “He hung out with the wrong crowd” and at some point, apparently, got heavily into drugs.
Visiting his son at school, his father found he was “a different child than the one I knew,” Manoukian said. A diagnosis of bipolar disorder might have explained the young man’s mood swings, but it was not the problem. “No, he was on drugs,” he said. “He deceived me for four years.”
Leedberg said such deceptions are not uncommon.
Drug testing kits can be purchased over the counter, she said, and although this method might seem extreme, she introduced it as an option. “It’s a personal choice,” she said. “I’m not recommending it.”
But it’s a more effective way than observation alone to find out if your child has been using drugs such as marijuana.
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