By Matt Lakin
KINGSTON — Pills killed more people in Roane County last year than guns, knives, car wrecks or plane crashes.
Twenty-one men and women died of accidental drug overdoses here in 2010, according to preliminary statistics from the county medical examiner. That’s an average of about one death every 17 days.
The first died 18 days into the year, the last a week before Christmas. The youngest was 23, the oldest 60.
Last year’s overdose rate registered at more than 38 deaths per 100,000 people — almost four times higher than the average rate in Tennessee’s most populous county.
“We have more OD’s per capita than anybody I know of,” Roane County Sheriff Jack Stockton said. “They’re from all ages and all walks of life. There’s no family, no economic background the pill epidemic doesn’t reach.
“The reason I know is because my son’s a pill addict. He’ll end up an overdose. I expect a call any day.”
The sheriff hasn’t seen or heard from his 30-year-old son in months.
“He was a red-haired, blue-eyed, all-American boy,” Stockton said. “He looked like Opie Taylor. Now I don’t know where he is. He got clean once and relapsed. I don’t expect him to come around again.”
The stories, the half-hearted apologies, the hollow excuses all start to sound the same after a while — whether told to a sheriff or a father.
“That’s what hurts the most,” Stockton said. “It’s not them anymore. It’s the pills. The pills are doing the talking. You can see it in the way they shy away from you. Most of them never even admit they have a problem.”
The first month of this year brought five reported overdose deaths. A Rockwood couple died in the same room this spring after blowing their monthly check on pills, officials said.
“We had an 11-year-old a few years ago,” said Dr. William Bennett, the county medical examiner. “Two times we’ve had patients caught chewing a fentanyl patch in the drugstore before they’re even out the door. We’ve found up to 400 methadone pills at one death scene before.
“All these overdoses are from prescription drugs, but the great majority didn’t have prescriptions for the drugs that killed them. It’s not like people are bringing these pills in by the truckload from Mexico. These are legal drugs coming through legal channels.”
For every death, more lives start down the road to addiction. The sheriff estimates his officers confront the problem on a daily, even hourly basis.
“The main thing we deal with is thefts to pay for the pills,” he said. “About 30 percent of my jail population is in here for this. We’re already over capacity and busting at the seams. When you’ve got middle-schoolers who can tell you where they can buy pills anywhere in their neighborhood, you know it’s a problem. We’ve even got older people selling. You hate to put Mom and Pop in jail.”
He and Bennett blame unemployment, overprescribing doctors and the easy accessibility of painkillers for the spread of addiction in their county. They don’t see an immediate solution in sight.
“A lot of people after the textile mills left got into the business of being sick,” Bennett said. “When it started, TennCare provided payment for narcotics. People were getting narcotics and selling them. Their job got to be being in pain. Now we’re in Oxycontin central.”
Knoxville News Sentinel, October 21, 2011