Many RI overdose deaths involve prescribed meds

An addiction to pain pills that became an addiction to heroin.

A 28-year-old man named Ross said he survived it, but knows many others who didn't.

"I didn't know the demon that I was awakening," he said. "I became homeless. I ended up going into the ACI. That's all because of drug use, starting off with what I thought at the time was a harmless pill."

Statistics released Wednesday show Ross is part of a growing public health crisis in Rhode Island, one that the state's top doctor calls heartbreaking.

"The people who are dying are our friends and neighbors, our sisters and our brothers, our children and our parents," said Director of Health Dr. Michael Fine.

More than 180 Rhode Islanders died from unintentional drug overdoses last year - more than four times the number of people who were the victims of homicide in the state, public health officials said.

"I'd suggest it's a serious problem. If we had 200 people killed in the streets of this state, I think people would be outraged," said Col. Stephen O'Donnell of the Rhode Island State Police.

Experts say the lack of awareness often comes down to a stigma.

"You don't have to be a bum to suffer the disease of addiction," said Holly Cekala, who manages the community center at Anchor Recovery in Pawtucket. "People don't have to die. They don't have to die. That's the really sad part. I myself lost a niece and nephew to overdose, and it just didn't have to happen."

Cekala said their doors are always open. But the problem is getting the people to people who need it before it's too late.

The Health Department is educating physicians how to better prescribe pain killers, and cracking down on doctors who break the rules.

Starting this year, a prescription drug monitoring program now links all Rhode Island pharmacies, making it tougher to doctor shop.

But as deaths from prescriptions go down, deaths from street drugs like heroin are going up, suggesting addicts are moving from one source to another.

Ross said the bigger problem can't be ignored.

"This is an epidemic. This isn't just something we can sweep underneath the rug," he said.