Law enforcement officers say they continue to see prescription drugs as a valuable commodity in the criminal world.
“It’s a growing problem. It’s the biggest growing problem,” said Tonganoxie Police Chief Jeff Brandau, a former Kansas Bureau of Investigation administrator.
The abuse of certain medications can also result in serious injury or death.
In a 2010 Lawrence case, 26-year-old Jack O’Bryon was found dead at home after a nighttime party. According to the autopsy, Douglas County Coroner Dr. Erik Mitchell detected fentanyl, an extremely powerful opioid analgesic used to treat severe pain, in O’Bryon’s system in a range where “deaths are expected in persons with inadequate accommodation to the central nervous system depressive effects of the drug.” Mitchell listed fentanyl toxicity as the proximate cause of O’Bryon’s death.
According to court records, Douglas County prosecutors allege O’Bryon paid money for a Lawrence woman’s prescribed fentanyl patches. Prosecutors in 2011 charged the woman, Julie A. Thompson, and her daughter, Stephanie A. Cabral, with possession with intent to distribute fentanyl and unlawfully arranging for sales or purchases of controlled substances using a communication facility for the alleged transaction. Cabral also faces a conspiracy charge, and her next hearing is scheduled for June 25.
According to a motion written by Thompson’s defense attorney Branden Smith, prosecutors allege Thompson asked Cabral to send O’Bryon a text message to arrange the exchange of her prescribed fentanyl patches for money. Prosecutors in April dismissed the charges against Thompson, but Smith said he could not comment further because prosecutors have the option to refile the case.
Brandau said he has seen overdoses occur when someone attempts to ingest or chew on fentanyl patches to get the powerful medication into their bloodstream quickly.
“It’s extremely dangerous,” he said.
Patrick Parker, director of pharmacy at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, said it’s common for addicts to even try to steal used fentanyl patches out of the trash. He advised the best way to dispose of any extra prescription patches is to keep them secure — out of reach of children and pets — until law enforcement agencies offer a day to dispose of unwanted medication, which is usually twice a year.
“It’s a useful drug from a therapeutic standpoint. It’s very potent, and it works well,” Parker said of fentanyl, which is often used on cancer patients. “But like other potent drugs, it’s a dangerous drug. When it’s administered in doses that are too high, people can literally stop breathing.”
Brandau said another key tool would be how extensively doctors when writing outpatient prescriptions screen patients to check for past abuse of medications or illegal drugs.