Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009 | As a prescription drug addict for nearly a decade, Bob Wright became an expert on manipulating doctors.

He would exaggerate pain symptoms or claim to be suffering from fibromyalgia, a condition that’s hard to disprove. He once got an unnecessary back surgery for the medication.

“I absolutely did not need it then,” Wright said. “I did it for the Vicodin.”

Wright started taking the powerful pain killer for back pain in 1996, and his chronic use morphed into an addiction. He was never charged with a crime or arrested, and his exploitation of the medical system demonstrates only one challenge law enforcement face in combating prescription drug abuse.

San Diego authorities say prescription drug abuse is becoming a larger concern in the region and they want to correct that trend soon. For the first time, people are robbing pharmacies and demanding bottles of drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin. Other people are “doctor shopping” like Wright, stealing from household medicine cabinets or smuggling illicit prescriptions from Mexico.

“The unique problem with pharmaceuticals is that there’s so many sources,” said Matthew Williams, a deputy district attorney who handles narcotics cases. “It’s not like the typical drug where it’s being run by an organization and we’re going to take that organization down.”

Narcotics like cocaine or heroin are largely distributed by the local gangs, but the prescription drug trade is more informal. A teenager might grab a few pills from grandma’s nightstand or sell a bottle of leftover Vicodin that was prescribed by a dentist. Wright’s doctors had no idea he used the pain killers for abusive purposes.

“It really comes down to your storytelling ability to acquire the medicine,” he said. “When one doctor doesn’t subscribe, you’ll just go to another.”

In an effort to highlight prescription drug abuse and create better lines of communication between law enforcement, local agencies created an Oxy Task Force last year. The group is now organizing public awareness campaigns and, among the various sources of abuse, is focusing on household medicine cabinets. That’s not to say medicine cabinets are the biggest problem, but law enforcement officials hope average residents can become involved in the solution.

“The first step is medicine cabinets because it’s the easiest place to access,” DEA spokeswoman Amy Roderick said. “If we educate the public, that’s going to be a huge help.”

Authorities want people to dispose of all unnecessary drugs and close off free access to teenagers who might abuse them. Wright started abusing pain killers after college in 1996, but he said he never stole from medicine cabinets. He had access to healthcare and money to get prescriptions.

James Lange is the coordinator of a program at San Diego State University that aims to prevent alcohol and drug abuse among students. He researches the popularity of prescription drugs among college students and was part of the California’s Task Force on Prescription Drug Misuse, which released a report earlier this year.

Lange agreed that law enforcement agencies are facing a huge challenge with combating so many different sources of abuse. Wright used doctors. Teens generally use friends or access through their parent’s medicine cabinets. Young adults appear more likely to use street dealers. Others cross the border and get drugs from Mexican pharmacies.

“There definitely is an age difference,” Lange said. “It is a pretty serious concern of ours (at SDSU), but it isn’t really something that we feel we can tackle alone.”

The Oxy Task Force aims to bring more focus to prescription drug abuse in the next year by collecting data from different law enforcement agencies. The group wants a better handle on each source of abuse by collecting better data on how people are affected by its distribution, which could be a large undertaking since most law enforcement agencies don’t track crime incidents related to prescription drugs.

Just look to the south.

Law enforcement authorities and other officials familiar with drug abuse say prescriptions for powerful pain medication are easy to get in Mexico. People can bring those drugs across the border with a written prescription — even scribbles on a notepad. Border Patrol agents are not trained to detect whether a prescription is legitimate, said Border Patrol Agent Jose Morales, a sector spokesman.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection also does not track how often people attempt to smuggle prescription drugs in to San Diego. Spokesman Vincent Bond said it would take days or weeks to calculate how many prescription drugs have been seized at border stations because agents categorize that type of material as “other” for statistical purposes. They would have to go through every record in the “other” category to determine whether any prescription drugs were seized.

Bond said border agents are primarily concerned with national security, narcotics and human smuggling. The collection of illegal prescription drugs would be “a consequence of our line of questioning,” he said.

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Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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