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Area pharmacists recognize role in opiate addiction, help search for solutions

Tony Casey • Aug 2, 2016 at 5:07 PM

In the past few years, Tennessee has taken a strong top-down statewide approach to curbing chronic pain prescriptions.

Stronger guidelines were rolled out about two years ago in a letter from Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. John Dreyzehner, who pointed at the “epidemic of substance abuse and misuse driven by prescription opioids.”

Dreyzehner acknowledged the many people in communities across the state who work passionately and creatively to fight for the cause.

Pharmacies and pharmacists are certainly in that group, as they’re often the people who process      doctors’ orders and pass along the medicines.

Wayne Copp, the pharmacy manager who heads Johnson City’s Blankenship Pharmacy, said two of the most frequent prescriptions he fills and disperses are for Subutex and Suboxone, which contain the drug buprenorphine. Buprenorphine can be very addictive, which often drives the behavior of those who get hooked.

But regardless of whether a certain percentage of his customers are using their prescriptions for potentially the wrong reasons, he said, the policy is to treat the customer getting buprenorphine the same as the customer who’s been getting the some high blood pressure medicine for 30 years.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix for this growing problem in Copp’s eyes, as he said it’s multi-faceted. That’s why he’s part of a group of other pharmacists, counselors and medical doctors in the area who discuss matters related to what Dreyzehner labeled an epidemic.

His peer, Joe Nicely, the pharmacist manager at West Towne Pharmacy, said the solution needs to be top-down, in the sense that there need to be fewer prescriptions to fill. He said that until doctors collectively stop writing so many, there will continue to be what looks like an insatiable public need for these drugs.

In the past, Nicely said doctors were more reluctant to offer those drugs to patients, and they were reserved for post-surgery, traumatic injuries or hospice-level situations.

But that doesn’t appear to be the case any more. Customers are constantly going into pharmacies for opiates.

Nicely and his staff often see obvious reasons not to fill the prescriptions of some customers.

There are various reasons the red flags might come up: multiple prescriptions using the same address, an appearance in the local newspaper for drug-related charges, or simply anything that doesn’t pass the pharmacist’s personal sniff test can end in a denial. 

And that’s all in line with their legal rights.

Though neither pharmacist commented on the more dangerous situations they’d encountered with customers looking for drugs, they acknowledge those situations happen, and both said it’s sad.

Nicely said it’s worse with the youngest generation.

“I'm just so sad,” he said. “I think we've a lost a significant portion of the population to this.”

The opioid epidemic also poses a safety risk for pharmacists and other employees at local drug stores.

Numerous pharmacies in Northeast Tennessee have been robbed in recent years, not just for cash, but for the controlled substances themselves.

Drug-seeking robbers hit five Johnson City Walgreens stores in a six-month period beginning last summer. Some have been armed, demanding prescription drugs from the pharmacists at gunpoint. In some cases, a robber leapt over the counter to obtain drugs. In one incident, a pharmacy technician was clubbed with a gun.

In an earlier incident, a robber fired a shot into the ceiling of Bevins Pharmacy and demanded Oxycodone and Oxymorphone. Police charged 24-year-old Andrew Ryan Givens with the robbery four months later.

Police say one repeat offender struck pharmacies in Kingsport and Johnson City, alleging that Christopher J. Fox struck the same Kingsport pharmacy in May and August of 2015 before robbing a Johnson City location the following October. Each time, he demanded drugs.

And in November 2014, a Johnson City pharmacy robbery led to a police standoff that ended when the robber took his own life. Anthony Eugene Goad, 46, 2421 Clearview Dr., Johnson City, died outside his vehicle at Blakemore Circle and Mayfield Drive after police pursued him after the robbery at Val-U-Pharmacy on West Market Street. 

Police said Goad had forced employees inside the pharmacy to lie on the floor while he took narcotics.

Email Tony Casey at tcasey@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.

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