The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports prescription pill related deaths in Florida fell sharply in the past few years.
State officials have said it’s a sign laws aimed at cracking down on “pill mills” in the Sunshine State are working. But, addiction specialists say the crackdown has had some unintended consequences.
Sherry Benjamin’s story is a pretty good snapshot of what life has been like for a lot of the state’s prescription pill addicts.
Benjamin moved to Fort Myers from Ohio a couple years ago. Before a rash of surgeries, she said she had never abused drugs of any kind.
“I was a soccer mom,” she explained. “I did everything for my kids. I was involved in church-- everything. And then I had surgery on my stomach and then 12 surgeries later, I was highly addicted to many different pain medications.”
But, Benjamin said her doctors kept prescribing her a slew of addictive pain killers.
“It started off that they were giving me Vicodin,” she said. “Then it went up to Percocet and then I had foot surgery and they gave me Oxycodone, OxyContin.”
She said she eventually had more surgeries to address stomach problems. That led to morphine and Fentanyl patches—on top of what she was already taking.
“To me, it was like they were giving me more pills than I really needed to have,” Benjamin said. “I was in serious pain all the time. I had to have it. You know, I felt like I was dying if I didn’t have them.”
For two and half years Benjamin said her life was out of control. She said her pill addiction took a toll on her marriage and her family.
“It was hell,” Benjamin said. “I mean, it was a hard life. It was just a struggle when you don’t have them and you wake up in the morning and you are sick and you are in pain. And it’s not even so much your body being in pain from pain, it’s pain from the pills, you know, not having them – the withdrawals and all that.”
And for a while, there was a culture in Florida that was helping her keep up that addiction. The state had lax regulations for prescription pain killers. So-called “pill mills,” usually known as pain management clinics, covered the state. According to a CDC report, by 2010, Florida was home to 98 of 100 doctors prescribing the highest quantities of Oxycodone in the U.S., which was the most widely prescribed pain killer in the country.
The CDC also reported that from 2003 to 2009, drug overdose deaths in Florida increased 61 percent. Experts said the increases were caused by opioid painkillers like Oxycodone.
Kevin Lewis, the President and CEO of SalusCare in Fort Myers—the largest substance abuse counseling provider in the area, said he had a front row seat to Florida’s prescription pill crisis. Lewis explained that a situation like Benjamin’s was all too common during those years.
“It was pretty clear that it was capitalism run amok where people saw the opportunity to make money and were prescribing ungodly amounts of prescription medication,” he said. “You had people who were early exposures—who had not historically struggled with addiction issues. But their brain chemistry is such that when they are exposed to these very powerful prescription opiates, they become dependent and addicted.”
But in 2011, state officials identified prescription pill abuse as the leading public health problem in Florida. State lawmakers cracked down on the state’s high-quantity prescribers. Law enforcement shuttered pill mills all over the state.
Benjamin said for her it was a dramatic shift.
“It was very hard to get my prescriptions filled,” she said. “They would give me a hard time. It’s kind of like someone feeding you a huge buffet and then cutting you off from food altogether.”
And this crackdown really worked. According to the latest CDC report, prescription pill overdose deaths fell by 23 percent in Florida from 2010 to 2012. In the same period, Oxycodone deaths fell by more than half.
Lewis said it’s a good thing prescription pills aren’t as easy to get anymore.
“On the flip side of that, we can’t lose sight of the fact that addiction is a disease and individuals that have now become dependent on opiates are going to seek out other opiates which will include things like heroin in order to meet that physiological dependence they have,” he said.
That is exactly what happened to Benjamin. When she couldn’t find pills anymore, she turned to crack cocaine and heroin. And this trend is something the CDC reported, too. Its statistics show while pill deaths went down in Florida, heroin related-deaths went up.
For Benjamin, things got a lot worse before they got better. Her drug-seeking landed her in jail. But, she said, that actually ended up saving her life. She was put in a program called drug court, which provided rehabilitation services. Benjamin said she and her husband tried to get her into rehab several times during those years, but they couldn’t afford it.
Now, she’s working hard on her recovery and she is doing really well.
“Since December when I got home my life has changed so much,” she said. “I have a great job. My kids respect me.”
Benjamin said she hopes her story will serve as a warning to others about the dangers of prescription pain killers. And Lewis warns more people will abuse heroin in the state if officials don't get serious about tackling all kinds of substance addiction.