As federal, state and local leaders look for answers to the deadly opioid epidemic in this country, a unique lab in Mississippi is also on the front lines of the battle, trying to keep physicians and law enforcement a step ahead of those who are Engineering an Epidemic.
Law enforcement officers are making record busts in the crackdown on opioids in this state. But where do they go when they are stumped about what deadly substances are laced into a street drug? The answer is the Toxicology Lab at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
"We are the only clinical toxicology lab in the state,“ said Dr. Patrick Kyle, UMMC Toxicologist and Associate Professor of Pathology.
Using sophisticated equipment, they break down and test blood and urine samples that help identify illegal designer drugs and prescription medicine. They can even help law enforcement determine what they can expect to see in the future. Years ago it was synthetic marijuana.
"Now we're focusing on the opioid epidemic," Dr. Kyle told us. "The prescription drug abuse has led into synthetic designer opioids. Some of which are a hundred or a thousand times stronger than morphine itself."
A few weeks ago a team found a powerful muscle relaxer in the blood of a child. A few days before we came to the lab a 3 and 5-year-old were brought in after finding hydrocodone on their mother's back seat. The lab analyzes about 8,000 samples a month.
"Most people don't grow up wanting to be a heroin user you know. But it all starts with that prescription and they get addicted to the opiates and the way it makes them feel," added Dr. Kyle. "Then they'll do anything to get that feeling, whether it's stealing, lying, cheating."
John Dowdy is the Director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics. He says there have been substantial spikes in overdose deaths reported by coroners this year. In Hinds County there was six fatal opioid overdoes in 2016. There have been 25 so far this year.
The state confirms 195 opioid deaths through the end of October. Right now the average is 19.5 deaths reported each month. The total could top 234 by the end of this year.
"There are items that come in or patients that come in over at UMMC and their lab may identify some of the new substances that we're not seeing or have not seen," said Dowdy.
The latest drug is cheap and relatively easy to find; twenty tablets that can be purchased for about 20 dollars. This bottle was picked up at a local convenience store. We're not giving the name.
"There is legislation in the United States currently to try to outlaw that compound, Dr. Kyle added. "It comes from a tree."
"I think we have even had one overdose death in the state," said Dowdy.
Dr. Kyle and Dowdy say parents must be more aware. Kids are now participating in what they call pill or skittles parties. The drugs are as close as the medicine cabinet at home.
"Get together with a bunch of kids on the weekend," added Dowdy. "Everybody drops their multi-colored pills into a bowl and take them and chase them with alcohol."
This epidemic can affect any of us at any time.
"We're talking businessmen, you know successful moms," said Dowdy.
So how do we fight back? Especially when chemists in Asia continue to flood this country and our streets with dangerous designer drugs. Dowdy says we must get rid of the stigma associated with addiction.
"the silence of this epidemic is deafening. And its also going to ultimately end up in the loss of a whole lot of lives before it's over with," said Dowdy.
That's why the work of the technicians in the Toxicology Lab is so important. They stay on the job to pinpoint problem drugs and help save lives.
Mississippi is a leading prescriber of opioids. Dr. Kyle and his team have found most opioid use in this state is by those 40 and younger.
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