Common epilepsy drug linked to overdoses, abuse

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Doctors are sounding the alarm on a popular prescription medication that has become the latest go-to drug on the street.

It’s called gabapentin, a medication that’s primarily used to treat nerve pain from shingles and control seizures. 

The I-Team discovered the pills are being abused across the country, including right here in western Massachusetts. They’re called “Johnny’s” on the black market and are generally cheaper to buy than heroin. 

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan told the I-Team, drug users combine gabapentin with heroin or other opioids to intensify their high, creating a sedation effect that can be dangerous and even deadly. “People have found that gabapentin’s cheap, it’s a good substitute to get high, so they’re abusing it more.”

DA Sullivan also said that they first spotted gabapentin abuse in the state a few years ago, when the drug was seen in overdoses in eastern Massachusetts. “We started seeing it about 3-years ago, DA Morrissey from Norfolk and his team of investigators really started seeing the trend with heroin overdoses.”

Sullivan told the I-Team the trend has since spread to western Massachusetts. “Our state troopers that do the investigations do find gabapentin at many overdoses. It’s one of those drugs that’s a wonder drug for anti-seizure or nerve pain, and it has wider prescription value too for other treatments. It’s just that it gets used by people as a substitute for opioids,” he said.

According to data, the I-Team obtained from the Office of the State Medical Examiner, gabapentin was detected in 52 overdose deaths last year. The problem is even more widespread in Kentucky, where the drug was found in more than one-third of all overdoses.

Dr. Robert Roose is the chief of addiction health and recovery services for Trinity Health of New England. He told the I-Team just how dangerous the drug can be when it’s not used properly. “It can slow down the breathing so much that if somebody stops breathing, it will subsequently then stop their heart from functioning.”

Dr. Roose said part of the problem is more doctors are prescribing gabapentin as an opioid alternative for pain. “The number of prescriptions for gabapentin have more than doubled from about 2011 to 2017, so from around 3-million prescriptions a year to around 6-million a year. With that, we’ve seen an increase in individuals misusing the medication at times.”

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, gabapentin was the tenth most commonly prescribed medication in the U.S. in 2016.

Massachusetts has taken to steps to combat gabapentin abuse. They classified it as an “additional drug” on the state’s prescription monitoring program last year, which means doctors need to report it when they prescribe it.

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