Tomorrow, Oak Bluffs and State Police plan to meet with Martha's Vineyard Hospital officials to talk about the growing Island problem of prescription drug abuse. The goal is to begin a discussion about how the medical and law enforcement community might cooperate, police said.
In a meeting with The Times yesterday, police described tomorrow's meeting as a first step. "We want to open the lines of communication," said State Police Sgt. Neal Maciel.
An arrest last month of a man who police said was selling Percocet, a painkiller, that had been filled on a local prescription and the discussion among police officers that followed prompted the police to take the initiative and set up the hospital meeting, said Sergeant Maciel.
Police said drug abusers employ several methods to procure prescription painkillers for personal use. Drug dealers use methods of their own to get prescription painkillers to sell for profit. The tactics include faking medical conditions and using altered records such as X-rays and so called "doctor shopping."
Drug abusers go to great lengths and travel long distances to find a doctor who can be convinced, or intimidated, into writing a prescription, according to police. The doctor may be busy or sympathetic and no match for people who know how to play the system. "These people are often master manipulators," said Oak Bluffs Police lieutenant Tim Williamson.
Police said there are roadblocks for law enforcement and physicians that make it more difficult to tackle the problem. Some are rooted in medical and criminal background privacy laws that may make it difficult to acquire or share information.
Sergeant Maciel said the medical community is aware of the problem of prescription drug abuse, and police do not intend to tell doctors how to do their job. He said people who truly need help to control pain should be able to get the medication they need, but the people who take advantage of doctors to procure drugs for sale need to be stopped.
Lieutenant Williamson, Sergeant Maciel, and State Police Sgt. Jeff Stone, head of the drug task force, expect to meet with hospital chief executive Tim Walsh and hospital administrative staff tomorrow.
Mr. Walsh said he welcomes the discussion. "It is a very positive thing the police are doing," said Mr. Walsh. "We are very aware it can be a problem. I know the medical staff struggles with the issue."
Several years ago the hospital created a patient contract that doctors can provide to patients, said Mr. Walsh. The contract spells out guidelines the patient agrees to follow, he said.
The arrest that spurred the hospital meeting took place last month following an investigation into reports of drug dealing by a man with a long criminal record.
After an investigation by members of the drug task force, on November 27, Oak Bluffs and State police arrested Jeffrey Alley, 54, in a downtown business parking lot as he concluded what they described as a drug transaction.
Lieutenant Williamson said that earlier that day Mr. Alley paid $1 through MassHealth, a public health insurance program for eligible low- and medium-income residents to fill a prescription written by a local doctor for 180 Percocets. He was selling the pills for $30 apiece, reduced to $20 in quantities of five or more.
Mr. Alley, a known drug user and dealer, had $860 in his possession and 87 Percocet pills when he was arrested, according to the police report.
The growing problem of prescription drug abuse cuts across all levels of society and all ages and is not limited to habitual drug users. Lieutenant Williamson said people who are not necessarily involved in criminal activity could become prescription drug abusers. There may be a level of acceptance, he said, and an unwillingness to consider the health risks because the pills originate with a doctor's prescription. That is particularly true among young people, he said.
Sergeant Stone, the man at the center of many drug investigations over the years, said the increase in prescription drug abuse across the country mirrors what is occurring on the Island.
State lawmakers are paying attention. A bill currently being considered by the joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse titled, An act requiring prescription drug abuse training for medical providers (House number 1913), would, if approved, require physicians to complete "no less than 10 hours of training on effective pain management, identification of patients at high risk for prescription drug abuse and other aspects of drug abuse."
House committee chairman Ruth B. Balser said there is concern about widespread addiction to prescription medications. She said that when properly administered, powerful painkillers can be very useful to patients but there is a need for more widespread training as part of the continuing education physicians receive. She added that the bill is not expected to be acted on before January.
The results of a federally funded survey released Tuesday showed a decline in the use of marijuana, the most popular illicit drug among young people. However, the study showed that the abuse of prescription psychotherapeutic drugs - including sedatives, tranquilizers, and narcotics other than heroin -is clearly increasing.
The study, conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, found that overall illicit drug use among 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders has continued its gradual decline, largely because of modest decreases in the use of marijuana and methamphetamines. But trends in teenage drinking and use of hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin have remained relatively steady, and young people continue to abuse such prescription drugs as OxyContin and Vicodin.
Monitoring the Future is an ongoing study of the behavior, attitudes, and values of American secondary school students, college students, and young adults. Each year, a total of approximately 50,000 8th-, 10th- and 12th-grade students are surveyed (12th-graders since 1975, and 8th- and 10th-graders since 1991). In addition, annual follow-up questionnaires are mailed to a sample of each graduating class for a number of years after their initial participation.