The following was published in the Bellingham Herald on August 31, 2009.
By Rob McKenna, Washington State Attorney General
Heath Ledger was on top of the world. In 2007, having been nominated for an Oscar for his role in the critically-acclaimed film Brokeback Mountain, the Australian actor had his pick of challenging, rewarding roles. Ledger had already appeared in many popular films, including Ten Things I Hate about You (filmed in part in the state of Washington). And having just turned in a buzz-worthy appearance as the Joker in The Dark Knight, Ledger's star was about to rise even higher.
Heath Ledger was found dead on Jan. 22, 2008. Doctors concluded that the 28-year-old had died from a lethal combination of prescription drugs, including oxycodone, hydrocodone and diazepam.
I wish I could say that the untimely overdose death of this young actor was an isolated incident. But prescription drug abuse is now a national epidemic, more deadly than the heroin and crack epidemics of previous decades.
In Washington state, there are more deaths annually from prescription drug abuse than from meth, cocaine, and heroin combined. Due to the abundance of prescription medications, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in our state. That means you or a loved one are more likely to die from a drug overdose than from a car crash.
What's causing this epidemic? Drugs like oxycontin, vicodin, and methadone are now commonly prescribed for pain. Prescription pain pills offer relief to millions of Americans but present a hidden danger. These kinds of drugs are called "opiates," the pharmaceutical cousins of heroin.
But while most people understand that heroin can be fatal, they don't know how dangerous prescription opiates can be. With parents unaware of the danger, teenagers are increasingly finding these drugs in medicine cabinets. A survey done by the Office of National Drug Control Policy shows that an alarming number of teens share pharmaceuticals with each other, and mix them together in an incredibly risky new mode of drug experimentation.
At the Attorney General's Office, we've used funds from consumer protection settlements with drug manufacturers - including the makers of oxycontin - to provide more than $1.7 million in grants that promote drug abuse prevention. Those grants have supported four events to teach kids how to create their own, peer-to-peer anti-drug programs. They've sent more than $680,000 for the Department of Health to research the creation of a drug monitoring program to prevent addicts from receiving duplicate prescriptions.
And we've dedicated funds to address the fact that American Indians are disproportionally impacted by the prescription drug epidemic. One grant awarded this year will open two new Boys & Girls Clubs on Native American lands by 2011, giving tribal youth access to the club's groundbreaking substance abuse programs.
But this problem will require more than government action. Today I'm asking for your help, too.
August was National Medicine Abuse Awareness Month. Let's take the opportunity to remember three important steps to take to protect our communities from prescription drug abuse: check, lock, dispose.
Check your medicine cabinet to see if you have any potentially dangerous drugs.
Lock up anything potentially dangerous.
And dispose of any unused meds, by taking them to one of the state's medicine return locations or by removing them from their bottles, putting them in a plastic bag, mixing them with an unpleasant substance like coffee grounds, and throwing them in the garbage.
I've put the how-to instructions, as well as which prescription drugs to look out for, on my web site: /prescription-drug-abuse.
Janelle Guthrie, Director of Communications, (360) 586-0725