Painkiller abuse in Minnesota vexes doctors, cops, politicians

Schedule 2 narcotics
Morphine Sulfate, OxyContin and Opana on display. The number of fatal overdoses caused by prescription opioids has skyrocketed in recent years in Minnesota and across the country.
Rich Pedroncelli | AP 2013

The deaths of her three young children in a 1988 house fire sent Lynnette Torres into a spiral of sadness numbed by alcohol and drugs — legal drugs.

Initially prescribed to help her cope with the pain, she became addicted. She tried to quit on and off for two decades but the lure of the pills was strong and she'd find herself in hospital emergency rooms or pharmacies seeking another fix.

"It's been 27 years, and I haven't really told anybody," Torres told a group of 1,000 medical professionals, law enforcement and lawmakers Tuesday at a Minneapolis conference on painkiller abuse — a problem driven by legally produced and distributed prescription drugs rather than street drugs.

Torres offered authorities a human face to a problem they must increasingly confront.

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The number of fatal overdoses caused by prescription opioids has skyrocketed in recent years in Minnesota and across the country. More than 16,000 people died of prescription opioid overdoses in 2013, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency has described the opioid overdose crisis as an "epidemic."

Much of today's drug problem stems from legally produced and distributed prescription drugs rather than street drugs, Gov. Mark Dayton conceded in his comments to the "Pain. Pill. Problem" conference, which included the Minnesota U.S. Attorney's Office, Mayo Clinic and Minnesota Department of Human Services.

"They're manufactured in offshore sites by legitimate pharmaceutical companies. And brought legally into the U.S.," Dayton said. "They're prescribed legally and distributed legally to people who supposedly need them, all ostensibly under tight control."

Part of the state's response has come from the Department of Human Services, which has created a number of working groups and initiatives that officials hope will limit the amount of prescription pills that get out into the public.

Officials have also been looking at whether opioids are being prescribed effectively for pain management in the state, said Dr. Jeff Schiff, medical director for Minnesota Health Care Programs at the Human Services Department.

There's little to no evidence of the benefit of long-term use of prescription opioids and "strong evidence of harm," Schiff said.

Dependence on prescription painkillers is not isolated to any particular geography or culture in the state, officials noted.

"These narcotic painkillers are often overprescribed, leading to abuse, addiction and often even death," Commissioner Lucinda Jesson told the audience. "We need to start with prevention, to prescribing to treatment and support for recovery."

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who's been active on the issue at the federal level, called for more money to probe the science of addiction. "We keep wanting to hope it to go away right, instead of saying, 'This is a disease in our midst and we have to put the investment in,'" she said.

Tuesday was Torres' first time speaking about her situation in front of a crowd. Most of her friends don't even know her story. Some of the hard lessons Torres has learned over the years are the same ones that doctors and public health officials on other panels at the conference were proposing.

"It;s just about time that someone knows my story, my struggle," said Torres, who kicked the drugs in 2011 with her doctor's help. "People need to know how you get hooked and desperate from the pills and shots — and how easy it is to do."