GREEN BAY, Wis. — Prescription opioids claimed the lives of about 300 people each year from 2006 to 2012, according to data from the state Department of Health Services.
Opioids are narcotic drugs, such as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin, typically used for pain relief and contain a synthetic form of opium, the core ingredient in heroin. They are the primary gateway to heroin use. Abusers can be curious teens, drug addicts looking for a different high or older adults suffering from pain who start with a legitimate need but slide into addiction.
Between 297 and 329 people died from prescription opioids each year from 2006 to 2012, as heroin deaths rose fivefold, according to Gannett Wisconsin Media (http://gbpg.net/1jWiEAD ). All but six counties reported at least one opioid death.
Louis Oppor, a substance abuse expert with the state health department, says it's not clear how many deaths were related to non-medical drug abuse and how many were accidental overdoses.
The highest deaths per capita — about seven per 10,000 residents — came in Kenosha and Milwaukee counties in southeastern Wisconsin, and Langlade and Vilas counties in the northern reaches. Other counties with concentrations among the 20 highest include Adams, Dodge, Manitowoc and Winnebago.
Wisconsin Community Health Alliance president Dorothy Chaney said users often perceive prescriptions as safer than heroin or other street drugs since they have a legitimate medical use. But consequences can be fatal when users exceed prescribed dosages, mix medications or take drugs in ways not intended by doctors.
"The reality is many households, if not most, have narcotics in them at some point, and in many cases that's where the addiction begins," Chaney said. "In many cases, patients aren't happy when they leave the doctor's office unless they've got a prescription in their hand."
The State Crime Lab has seen a steady increase in opioid cases in the past decade, rising from 170 in 2004 to 640 in 2013, according to the state Department of Justice.
Jim Bohn, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Milwaukee office, said prescription drug abuse is more difficult to investigate and prosecute than street drug use since medications also have a legitimate purpose.
"If you have a doctor who may be prescribing outside his medical practice, those are tough cases to make," Bohn said.