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22 million pain pills sent to Stanly County in 6 years

A new analysis of a Drug Enforcement Administration database shows there were almost 22 million prescription pain pills supplied to Stanly County from 2006 to 2012. 

First reported by the Washington Post, the database was made public due to a lawsuit involving IT and the Gazette-Mail of Charleston, W.Va. The database contains statistics about the number of prescription pills trafficked into pharmacies, who distributes the pills and who manufactures them. 

Among distributors, AmerisourceBergen Drug led the way, sending 5.89 million pills to the county from 2006 to 2012. SpecGx LLC was the biggest manufacturer of prescription medicine in Stanly County, making a little more than 9 million pills during those six years. The Medical Pharmacy of Albemarle had the most prescription pills out of any other pharmacy in the county, receiving more than 5.5 million pills during the six-year span. 

According to the North Carolina Injury and Violence Prevention Branch, there have been 43 opioid overdoses in Stanly County. While this number is lower than it was at the same time last year, the county still has work to do before it can declare itself opioid-free. 

North Carolina Rep. Wayne Sasser said doctors and pharmacists did not know how addictive opioids would be when the drug first become prevalent. He has been a pharmacist for more than four decades. Sasser said while many doctors around the country are prescribing these medications, there are alternatives that are just as effective. 

“Eight hundred milligrams of ibuprofen three times a day is proven to be just as effective as most of the opioid pain pills,” Sasser said. 

Medications like acetaminophen, used to treat pain and reduce fevers, can also be just as effective, Sasser said. According to Sasser, some patients prefer opioids over other medications because they see results quicker. While this is somewhat true, Sasser said he does not see anything wrong with a little pain. 

“Pain is good for you,” Sasser said. “Pain is your body’s way of telling you that you need to take it easy.” 

In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told doctors pain was a “disease state,” Sasser said. Because of this, the opioid industry took off. According to Sasser, doctors were essentially told they could distribute the drugs freely as long as there was a need for them. 

“I’ve been a pharmacist for 45 years,” Sasser said. “This is not what I’ve read in a book, this is what I’ve lived.” 

Sasser said one of the biggest factors behind the increase in opioid availability is money. Last year, pharmaceutical companies in the United States generated more than $200 billion in revenue. Prescription drug companies accounted for 63 percent of the total revenue. When asked how much money was involved in the opioid industry, Sasser said he could not grasp how much it is. 

“It’s similar to the marijuana situation in Colorado,” Sasser said. “When you see how much is being generated legally, there’s probably twice that much being generated on the black market. If you buy it at half price, you can buy more than you usually would.” 

Sasser said many illegal substances being sold on the black market are coming from across the border. He said border patrol agents in Texas are trained to spot anyone coming across who may look suspicious, but it would be impossible for them to catch every person trying to bring in something illegal. 

According to the National Drug Threat Assessment conducted by the Drug Enforcement Agency in 2018, Mexico is the primary source of heroine, fentanyl and methamphetamine.

“I know it comes in 55-gallon drums,” Sasser said, referring to the method drugs are trafficked into the country. “You know, they’re not carrying it across.” 

Lawmakers have gained control of the “legal” part of the opioid crisis, Sasser said. He said he has been met with opposition when it comes to ending the crisis, with some people saying restrictions on opioids may force them to seek out harder drugs, such as heroin. Still, Sasser said he is confident the situation will be under control in the near future. 

“Until we close our borders and stop all the heroin, and all that stuff that’s coming in, then I’m not sure how much progress we can make.”