Legal but Dangerous: Locals Work to Curb Prescription Drug Abuse

Phil Bauer didn’t understand the dangers of prescription drug abuse until the day his son didn’t wake up.

He and his wife found Mark, then only 18, unconscious on his bed just two weeks before his graduation from West York Area High School. Bauer tried performing CPR, but his son was already gone, overdosed on a cocktail of oxycodone, acetaminophen, morphine and amphetamine.

Each pill was perfectly legal.

“At the time, I said something I knew was wrong, I knew was stupid,” Bauer said more than a decade after his son’s death. “It was, ‘Thank God, at least he didn’t die from doing drugs.”

Now, he knows better — prescription drugs, legal or not, can kill.

Like many overdose victims, Mark Bauer started self-medicating when his doctor-prescribed drugs did not give him the relief he thought he needed. His parents, friends and teachers had no idea he was taking a dangerous mix of pills, said Phil Bauer, who lives in West Manchester Township.

It’s a story Hanover-Adams prosecutors and medical professionals say they have heard too many times. The issue, however, is a challenging one to treat because patients assume anything a doctor could prescribe is safe.

“I feel guilty because I didn’t talk with our kids about the dangers of prescription drugs,” Bauer said. “But I didn’t think about it. To me, it was medicine.”

Addiction stories differ:

Each victim is different. Some are in their 20s, some are in their 60s. Some buy their drugs illegally, and others take them out of their own medicine cabinets.

Most never think the drugs will kill them, said Adams County Coroner Pat Felix.

Many of the overdose victims she has seen became immune to their medications, so they started to take more, she said. Or they mixed medications without knowing the risk involved.

In York County, the story is the same, said Coroner Pam Gay. People have legitimate pain or anxiety but don’t know how to handle it safely. Usually, she said, victims overdose on their own prescriptions, most commonly opiates, found in painkillers like OxyContin, and benzodiazepines, found in antidepressants like Xanax.

These medications have long been the leading cause of overdose deaths in York and Adams counties, according to coroners’ records. At least 21 people have died in the two counties this year — 19 confirmed in York, and another two in Adams.

These numbers are, however, on-track to being lower than last year, when York County saw a total of 56 deaths and Adams saw eight. This change could be a sign of successful prevention initiatives such as prescription drop-off events as well as the increased price of drugs like OxyContin on the black market, according to prosecutors.

Brian Sinnett, however, said he still sees prescription abuse just about every day in his position as assistant district attorney for Adams County.

While the medications are often legal, addiction can lead to criminal activities like driving under the influence or stealing to fund illegal pill purchases, he said. Others move to illegal drugs, like heroin, when they can no longer afford black-market medications.

Many of these cases, however, are difficult to process because criminals still have prescriptions for the drugs they abuse, he said.

The variety of ways people acquire the pills also makes prosecution and prevention difficult, said York County Assistant District Attorney David Sunday.

Law enforcement officials can arrest dealers who illegally sell drugs, Sunday said, but they can do little to prevent doctors from over-prescribing addictive medication.

“It’s something we really have no control over,” Sunday said.

Sometimes, parents know their children are abusing drugs and can help them find help, Bauer said. He meets parents like these all the time when he shares his son’s story with outreach groups.

Often, though, addicts continue to function normally until their situations become dire. That was the case for Bauer’s son, who gave no indication to his friends, family or teachers that he had a problem.

Treating the accidental addict:

Addiction often starts with a few Oxycontin to take the edge off pain, or some Xanax to relieve persistent anxiety.

Sometimes, though, patients want more than their doctor will prescribe, or they mix their medication with other drugs. That’s when the problems starts.

“When drugs start interfering with you taking care of your kids, going to your job, grocery shopping, taking a shower, that’s when it becomes an issue,” said Katrina Mooney, director of nursing at Clarity Way Rehab Center in Heidelberg Township.

Medically, Clarity Way has the tools to ease addicts through withdrawal, she said. Therapeutically, though, the addiction is challenging to treat because patients struggle with the idea that something their doctor gave them could lead to dependence.

Rob Matylewicz watches patients deal with this conflict all the time.

As a family doctor at Spring Grove’s Main Street Family Medicine, he sometimes sees patients who clearly want drugs for non-medical use. And in his other job as Clarity Way’s medical director, he sees the physical and emotional dependency prescription medications can have on patients who want to stop taking them.

“People don’t start out to abuse them,” Matylewicz said. “They just find out they’re not as angry, they’re not as stressed, so they keep going for the medication.”