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Prescription drugs more commonly found than illegal ones during autopsy

By Staff | Dec 3, 2010

Autopsies performed statewide during the first half of the year revealed that prescription drugs were found more often than illicit drugs in the bodies of dead people.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement released the Florida Medical Examiners Commission Report on Drugs Identified in Deceased Persons on Thursday. It contains information complied from autopsies performed by medical examiners across Florida from January through June of 2010.
During those six months, there were approximately 89,800 deaths. Of those cases, 4,150 people were found to have died with one or more of the drugs in the report in their bodies. Prescription drugs accounted for 81 percent of all drug occurrences when ethyl alcohol was excluded, according to the report.
“It is no longer just illegal narcotics like cocaine and heroin being sought and sold on our streets,” FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey said in a prepared statement. “Drug dealers have made legal narcotics a top-shelf priority.”
“Even when used correctly by a prescribing physician, these are potent drugs,” he said. “When abused, overused or mixed, they can become deadly.”
According to the report, the four most frequently occurring drugs found were ethyl alcohol in 1,831 cases, Benzodiazepines in 1,700 cases, including the 986 cases of Alprazolam occurrences, Oxycodone in 1,117 cases and cocaine in 603 cases. Alprazolam accounted for the majority of deaths.
The other drugs that caused the most deaths were Oxycodone, all of the Benzodiazepines, Methadone, ethyl alcohol and cocaine, the report states.
“I think it reflects a growing concern nationally and especially in Southwest Florida about prescription drugs,” Deborah Comella, executive director of the Lee County Coalition for a Drug-Free Southwest Florida, said of the report.
Comella added that there are two issues that need to be looked at.
“People need to take prescription drugs very seriously,” she said. “We need to be very, very careful when we take prescriptions drugs and take them exactly as the doctor prescribes.”
For example, Xanax is a common drug that is prescribed for legitimate reasons. Comella said the user is not supposed to operate heavy machinery when taking the prescription, but that most people do not think of motor vehicles as heavy machinery and drive while taking the prescription.
“Read the instructions,” she said. “Be aware of the (side) effects.”
Comella said people can underestimate prescription drugs.
“They are very complicated compounds and they have lots of different effects on the human body that we need to be aware of,” she said.
The report found that the most lethal drugs, meaning that more than 50 percent of the deaths were caused by the drug when the drug was found, were heroin at 83.3 percent, Methadone at 75.5 percent, Oxycodone at 64 percent and Fentanyl at 52.5 percent.
Heroin continued to be the most lethal drug named in the report. However, occurrences decreased by 40 percent, and deaths caused by heroin dropped by 40.5 percent over the last half of 2009. Deaths caused by Methadone and cocaine also declined compared to the last six months of 2009.
Deaths by Methadone dropped by 1.2 percent and cocaine by 11.3 percent.
Compared to the last half of 2009, occurrences of Oxycodone increased by 10.9 percent while occurrences of Hydrocodone rose by 4.1 percent in 2010. The report also revealed that deaths caused by Oxycodone and Hydrocodine increased when compared to the last six months of 2009.
Deaths by Oxycodone rose by 63 cases and Hydrocodine by 10 cases.
Comella said the second issue that needs to be addressed is the fact that people are using prescription drugs for non-medical reasons. She said they may be self-medicating or just enjoying the feeling or high from the drug.
“There’s a lot of addictions out there,” she said.
Comella advised people to keep an inventory of their prescriptions.
“To make sure they’re not getting into the wrong hands,” she said.
Parents should talk to their children about the dangers of drugs, both illicit and prescription ones, as well as drinking. Comella also suggested that people properly dispose of their unwanted medications, not throw them in the trash.
Medications can be dropped off anonymously at any time at the Lee County Sheriff’s Office Evidence Facility, at 10070 Intercom Drive, Fort Myers. For more information or directions, contact the sheriff’s office at 477-1000.