Heroin, Buprenorphine Drug Busts on the Rise in Tennessee

Wednesday, February 10, 2016 | 2:23pm

NASHVILLE – Tennessee’s nearly half-decade long effort, dedicated to limiting easy access to prescription pain medications and similar opioid-based narcotics, has been successful. Since 2012 the state has seen a steady decline in the use and abuse of these substances commonly prescribed by family physicians. 2015 drug seizure data from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) shows a significant drop in law enforcement confiscations of prescription opioids, ie: pain pills.

Steep Decline of Prescription Opioid Drug Seizures: 2012 - 2014

 6,988 Opioid seizures in 2012 - 4,696 Opioid drug seizures in 2014

*Opioid seizures exclude buprenorphine and heroin; data does not reflect amount of drug seized

This success coincided with Tennessee’s Prescription for Success initiative, launched in 2014. While beneficial in reducing demand for prescription drugs it has resulted in some unintended consequences.

Today, the growing appetite in most Tennessee counties is for heroin and the painkiller replacement medication buprenorphine, known under brand names Subutex and Suboxone. They’re now widely prescribed as therapies to ease opioid withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

 “It’s troubling to see these ‘so called’ painkiller replacement therapies dispensed by unlicensed clinics getting patients hooked and dependent on another drug, just as they were to prescription pain pills, “said E. Douglas Varney, Commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. “Our statewide, multi-agency Prescription for Success strategy did an excellent job of reducing demand for prescription pain opioid medications. But once again I’m very concerned about what’s emerging in our state.”

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation data on recent drug seizures for heroin and buprenorphine shows both substances surfacing as new illicit drugs of choice in Tennessee.

Heroin and Buprenorphine Drug Seizures Rising: 2009 - 2014

82 Heroin seizures in 2009 has increased to 341 seizures in 2014

437 Buprenorphine seizures in 2009 has grown to 1,085 in 2014

*Data does not reflect amount of drug seized

“There were very few heroin seizures by law enforcement in 2011 and 2012,” said Commissioner Varney. “By 2015, seizures were occurring routinely in Tennessee’s larger cities and surrounding counties. We’re very concerned about this development as our citizens with an addiction will often resort to obtaining drugs, legally or illegally, any way they can, putting themselves and loved ones at risk of injury or death.”

The widely available opioid-based buprenorphine replacement therapies, Subutex and Suboxone, are commonly dispensed from cash-only clinics. They’re intended to reduce patient cravings. And much like the misuse and abuse of prescription pain medications, these therapies have a street value, too.

“There is no denying heroin’s grip on a troubling number of people in Tennessee,” said TBI Director Mark Gwyn. “But our Agents are also encountering the therapeutic drugs on the street during the course of their investigations. Clearly, there are people out there hoping to profit from substances meant to help, not hurt.”

Buprenorphine Seizures Skyrocket 2011 - 2015

Approximately half of Tennessee’s counties had buprenorphine seizures in 2011/2012

In 2014/2015 nearly 70% of Tennessee counties had buprenorphine seizures

*East and Middle Tennessee saw the highest seizure rate increase

Across Tennessee, cash-only clinics with their replacement medications are clearly flourishing and expanding their operations, catering to the growing demand to satisfy an addiction or ease withdrawal symptoms. Treatment medications, under the brand names of Subutex and Suboxone, need to be prescribed by responsible physicians who offer treatment to people with addiction problems.

“While there may be a legitimate need for therapy drugs in our communities, like any substance, there is always a potential for illicit abuse,” said Gwyn. “We are committed to working with our local, state, and federal partners to identify and hold accountable those contributing to every drug issue impacting Tennessee.”

*Data Source: Tennessee Bureau of Investigation lab data 2015

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