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Medical Examiner: Polypharmaceutical Deaths Consistent in Arkansas

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Arkansas saw a significant spike in the use of methamphetamine during the month of June, making it the most abused drug last month, according to the State Health Department’s Substance Abuse Division. While opiates are a problem, the department says heroin has not yet surpassed alcohol as the drug of choice in the state, as it has in other southern states like Tennessee. The state is, however, among the top 10 states in the U.S. for prescription painkiller abuse, with roughly 116 painkiller prescriptions per 100 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“Overdose deaths have been a huge issue for a while,” says Director of the Arkansas State Medical Examiner’s Office Dr. Kermit Channell. “It’s fair to say it’s pretty consistent.”

Dr. Chandler says one type of overdose death is increasing – polypharmacy. That’s when someone dies and has several different drugs in their system, oftentimes prescription medications that don’t even belong to them.

Just in the most recent Legislative session, the state passed the Naloxone Act, making naloxone (a known antidote to heroin overdose) more accessible to the public, as well as the Prescription Monitoring Act to cut down on doctor shopping. Prescription Monitoring Acts have been passed in most other states, and while it is a good measure, it has been known to decrease the accessibility of prescription painkillers, making it easier to turn to the cheaper and more accessible heroin. Because the drug has a high potential to progress into needle sharing, perpetuating the potential for Hepatitis C and HIV outbreaks, many states have adopted needle exchange programs, which Arkansas has not yet established.


“Prescription medications are still the largest number of deaths we’ve seen,” says Dr. Channell. “Some cases where they have multiple prescriptions, cocaine and methamphetamine in their system.”

Dr. Channell says it’s a problem.

“There’s a lot of talk out there about heroin,” says Dr. Channell. “It has come to a lot of states and we’re on the lookout for it.”

The state does this by monitoring how much heroin comes in, and as of yet, law enforcement agencies haven’t seen an uptick in use, but they are paying close attention, especially because of its inexpensive nature versus the high price of prescription painkillers on the street.

“We have seen a few heroin deaths but not in excess,” says Dr. Channell. “We’re not seeing a market increase.”

Dr. Channell says one problem they have seen in Arkansas are synthetics and bath salts. He says the state has seen multiple overdose deaths involving those drugs, as well as the chemical formulations of those types of drugs. Experimentation is something Matt Lawrence, a graduate of Faulkner County Drug Court, says can destroy everything around you. He got in trouble for possession of cocaine.

“When I was 21 I moved to town and got a really good job and started experimenting with different drugs,” says Lawrence. “The first time I got caught and was supposed to show up in court I didn’t go, mainly because I was scared. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Matt would move on to another city in the state and continue drinking and experimenting until he got pulled over for expired tags and was expedited back, and the judge gave him two options:

“He said I could enroll in drug court or I could enroll in long-term treatment,” says Lawrence.

Bethlehem House, a nonprofit agency, gave Lawrence the opportunity to work and pay off his nearly $7000 in fines.

“You have to make the decision that living sober is something you want to do,” says Lawrence. “If you had asked me then where I would be today, it wouldn’t be here. I had to make the decision that it was something I wanted.”

Vertava Health has partnered with the Gloucester Police Department in Massachusetts to offer treatment to people in the grips of drug addiction to give them a place to go without fear of arrest. In just a month, nearly 60 people are now in long-term treatment. It is our hope that other law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. will adopt similar measures.

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