MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - As the state combats the deadly opioid and painkiller epidemic, pharmacists are emerging as the gatekeepers, playing a critical role in recognizing the signs and symptoms of abuse.
Tuesday, a group of pharmacists, medical professionals and law enforcement came together for an addiction conference hosted by Auburn University's School of Pharmacy. The Montgomery conference is the third and final stop in its inaugural rollout.
Auburn University approached ADECA, who pulled together nearly $184,000 of grant money to make it a reality.
Conference organizer, and Associate Pharmacy School Professor, Dr. Brent Fox says the conferences proved each region of the state is differently impacted by this problem.
"Alabama has a severe problem with misuse and abuse," Fox said. "We are trying to bring our expertise of medication, with law enforcement and address problem from more than one perspective."
Fox says the goal is to simply start the conversation to a problem that doesn't have a clear-cut solution.
"The complexity of solving the problem," Fox stated. "You can't arrest your way out of this problem, from a law enforcement perspective. Pharmacy doesn't have a large impact on illicit medication. It's multi-pronged."
It takes years of education and hard work to become a pharmacist, but it's street knowledge that could play a vital role in curbing Alabama's opioid epidemic. Pharmacists were zeroed-in on law enforcement presenters at the conference, explaining the signs and symptoms of addicts, and what they need to build a prosecutable case.
Drug Task Force Sergeant Sean Malloy, with the Prattville Police Department, came with stories, pictures and even passed around illicit drugs to drive home the culture that both law enforcement and pharmacists are now dealing with the same clientele.
"I wanted to bring them to a world that is around them but for whatever reason, they didn't know exists," Malloy stated. "If we can get a few more medical professionals that are more adamant about taking their time and checking each patient out and checking their medical history, maybe even calling law enforcement to intervene, maybe we have been successful. Now they can see a pattern, see behavior and it can help them prevent drug abuse."
Malloy admits the frustration of investigating a doctor shopping case and learning every piece of evidence was in the medical database to show pharmacists a red flag before dispensing a prescription. It's a partnership of accountability he hopes to foster between law enforcement and pharmacists going forward.
"Sometimes, we do feel like we are spinning our tires in the mud," Malloy said. "We want to be just as active to make sure the same people are not doctor shopping, and making false reports about stolen medication. We are trying to play our part. It does get frustrating. We want to do the dangerous part, that's what we signed up for. We want them to know they have a role, and we are here to help."
On Monday, a doctor pleaded guilty to running a pill mill out of his family practice, a case that was investigated and prosecuted because a pharmacist saw the red flag and contacted the proper authorities. Pharmacists at the conference said they are thankful for the training, and are up for the challenge.
"I feel our role is very important, we are one of the checkpoints and we dispense the medications," stated pharmacist Britney Willis. "Anything we can do to catch red flags, to prevent those medications from being dispensed; I think we play a critical, vital role."
Consequently, interrupting the supply of opioids to addicts will consequently cause a spike in heroin use, which has proven deadly for north Alabama and Jefferson County.
"That is coming," Malloy stated. "We hammer one area, therefore they turn to a different area. Hopefully, we can combat both problems at the same time. It's hard; if we concentrate on both, we can prevent one from increasing while the other decreases."
ADECA organizers will take the developments from the conferences and create regional plans and protocols for the state to have a formal roadmap in fighting this crisis.