- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 9, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Prescription drug abuse is the state’s fastest-growing drug problem, Wyoming health and law enforcement officials said.

Deaths in the state related to overdosing on prescription drugs have risen from five in 2004-05 to 116 deaths in 2012-13, according to a statement released this week by the Wyoming Department of Health.

“Clearly, we have a major public health concern on our hands in this state,” said Dr. Wendy Braund, state health officer. “Prescription medicines can do wonderful things when used properly, but legal doesn’t always mean safe.”

Representatives from a range of government agencies are meeting monthly as the Prescription Abuse Stakeholders. The agencies involved include the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, the state health department as well as the state boards of pharmacy, medicine and nursing and others.

Kebin Haller, deputy director of operations at the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, said investigations related to heroin and prescription-controlled substances intended for pain relief have doubled in recent years.

“This is a drastic increase in opiate/opioid investigations compared to the typical 5-10 percent we have seen in the past,” Haller said, adding that prescription drug abuse often precedes heroin use.

“I never thought I would say that we have a heroin problem in Wyoming, but we do now have a heroin problem in Wyoming,” Haller said. “It is directly connected to the abuse of prescription-controlled substances related to pain relief.”

Mary Walker, executive director of the Wyoming Board of Pharmacy, said people have been known to steal prescription medications from home medicine cabinets or they take them from grandparents and friends.

“We see ‘doctor shopping’ and other kinds of fraud to get unneeded prescriptions, as well as armed robberies from pharmacies,” Walker said. “People get addicted, and then they get desperate.”

The Wyoming Department of Health recommends people dispose of unneeded medications, especially those intended for pain relief. Some communities have secure drop boxes for drug disposal.

Kim Deti, spokesman for the health department, said Tuesday that the state doesn’t track heroin overdose deaths specifically. Wyoming has a system of elected county coroners who may choose to send overdose victims out of state for autopsies.

“On the boarder category, what we are seeing, it can say ‘prescription drugs and opiates,’ so we are still seeing increases in the deaths on prescription drugs,” Deti said. “The one we have trouble with on deaths is heroin, to get down to that particular level. But we are seeing when it’s either the primary or secondary cause of death, the connection with the prescription drugs continues to go up.”

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