Drug abuse contributed to 29 fatalities — including 24 deaths by overdose — in Letcher County in 2011, according to statistics released by the Letcher County Coroner’s Office.
Letcher County Coroner Marty Baker said two drug-related deaths were ruled as suicide by gunshot wound last year, while three other people died in car wrecks in which drugs were determined to be a causing factor.
The number of drug overdoses increased from 18 in 2010, when 24 drug-related deaths were recorded.
“All of these people were with other people and were partying or trying to get high,” Baker said of the overdoses. “They didn’t mean to kill themselves.”
About 300 of Letcher County’s 24,500-plus residents die each year. While the majority of those deaths are the result of natural causes, about 100 deaths per year require action by the coroner’s office. That means that nearly a third of the deaths documented by Baker in 2011 were drug-related.
Baker said the number of drugrelated deaths in the county is lower than it could be because a few overdose victims died after being transported to distant medical facilities. Since those deaths actually occurred in other counties or states, those overdoses aren’t included in Baker’s figures.
Letcher County Sheriff Danny Webb said the increase in the number of drug-related deaths shows how prevalent the drug abuse problem continues to be here.
“Still our number one problem is the addiction to pain pills and people are still going to doctors out of state and coming back and selling what they don’t take,” Webb said. “It does seem to be getting worse because of the number of deaths related to it and the number of complaints of people selling drugs.”
Letcher Commonwealth’s Attorney Edison G. Banks II agrees that the number of drug-related deaths in 2011 could be higher than actually reported. Banks guesses that some drug- related deaths occurred without autopsies or toxicology tests being performed.
Banks said there are about five or six cases a year — not necessarily in fatal cases, but in cases with serious injury — where an officer reports seeing visible pill residue on a person’s nose only to have a toxicology report say that no drugs were detected.
“Without the labs showing anything it is about a lost cause,” said Banks.
Baker, who is a supervisor at Whitesburg Appalachian Regional Hospital, said more than 90 people were treated for drug overdoses at the hospital’s emergency room in 2011 and survived. About 80 people were treated for overdoses in the ER in 2010 and survived, he said.
“That’s a huge number of folk,” said Baker. “Then you’ve got that number (of overdose cases) that don’t come to the ER and live.”
Baker said overdoses in 2011 consisted mostly of prescription narcotics and anti-anxiety drugs, or a combination of both. Hydrocodone and oxycodone are popular narcotics. Drugs sold under the brand names Xanax, Valium and Klonopin are the benzodiazepines that most often appear in toxicology reports.
Baker said the pharmaceutical drug gabapentin, which is sold under the brand name Neurontin and is used as a non-narcotic treatment for epilepsy and nerve pain, also showed up in several toxicology reports. He has also documented overdoses involving buprenorphine and methadone, which are used to treat opiate addiction.
“ Typically, when you mix meds that is when it can be lethal,” said Baker. “If you take what you are prescribed by how much you are prescribed you will be safe.”
Some overdoses included pain pills mixed with alcohol, Baker said.
“People are more hooked on prescription medications than alcohol,” said Baker. “Prescription meds outweigh it.”
Baker said that many of the prescription pain pills responsible for the overdoses were prescribed by doctors practicing medicine outside of Kentucky.
Webb said it is getting harder for people to get pain pills prescribed to them by doctors in Kentucky because of KASPER (Kentucky All Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting), which keeps track of controlled substances prescribed in the state. Webb also said Kentucky doctors are familiar with their patients.
“They treat people the way they need to be treated,” said Webb.
Patients seeking large quantities of pain pills head out of state to avoid KASPER and obtain narcotics from “pill mills” and bring the drugs back to the county for their own addictions and to sell to others, Webb said.
“You have to be suspicious when someone from Kentucky goes to Georgia to the doctor,” said Webb. “The biggest problem is you have doctors who are greedy and are trying to make money and they are taking advantage of the addictions.”
Webb said with drug addiction comes more crime.
“They get so addicted to it that they don’t think of the bad things,” said Webb. “Most of our thefts, robberies and everything that goes with it is a part of our drug problem.”
Baker wants the public to be aware of the large number of people who died from drug abuse in the last year.
“Hopefully the information provided will decrease the number of incidents we have in the future,” said Baker. “If you are in a situation where you feel you have overdone it or are in respiratory distress or if you see someone else who is, call 9-1-1.”
The federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that drug overdose death rates in the United States have more than tripled since 1990.