The opioid epidemic has made news across the United States. In an earlier blog, I wrote about this issue and its effects on our nation’s seniors. But last week, I read an article that gave me pause. In this story, the reporter claimed that not only are our seniors rapidly becoming addicted to painkillers but they are also becoming the fastest growing group of drug dealers in our society. After reading this, I decided to do some research and was quite surprised but what I found.
Here in Rhode Island, I found a story about an 80-year-old woman named Martha Maddison, also known on the street as the “Trap Queen”. According to the report, Maddison was found to have 100 kilograms of cocaine stashed away in a wardrobe in a room where her grandchildren are known to stay. She was arrested and detained at the Adult Correctional Institution in Cranston, RI.
In Taunton, Massachusetts, 74-year-old Pedro Rodriquez was arrested by that city’s police department after they seized three pounds of cocaine and a pound of marijuana along with a substantial coin collection that police claimed was used to launder his drug money. Neighbors of the senior were shocked, stating that he was just “a caring guy who would always be there to help”.
A further search revealed a plethora of arrests around the country of seniors for pedaling drugs on the street to make “fast money”. Here are some examples;
In Chicago, Eddie Cain, a 70-year-old resident of a senior housing project was charged by police with selling crack cocaine to an undercover officer. A resident at the Golden Towers Senior Community, he was charged with two counts of delivering a controlled substance on public housing property
An 80-year-old grandmother was arrested for selling OxyContin to an undercover officer in Indiana and police found $20,000 in cash when they raided her apartment
A Pennsylvania grandmother was arrested at a Dunkin Donuts after passing a dozen oxycodone pills to her granddaughter
In Ohio, drug dealers hung around pharmacies waiting to buy opioid prescriptions from seniors as they exited. Three elderly women were arrested by selling their scripts
In San Francisco, police reported that a frail elderly man was trying to sell his Vicodin and antibiotics to buy heroin, a much cheaper drug
In Kentucky, a warden of a county jail reported that Appalachian seniors are being arrested in record numbers for selling their pain medication
In Mississippi, a 73-year-old great grandmother was arrested for selling her Lortab prescription
In Tennessee, a 65-year-old woman was charged with selling her OxyContin to buy lottery tickets
Meanwhile, in New York, a WCBS reporter named Hazel Sanchez ran a series of reports on senior drug dealing, which included a story about a 59-year-old named Tina White who was caught selling her oxycodone, a 91-year-old named Archie Bethea who was detained for selling multiple prescription drugs on the street and 81-year-old Arthur Cox who sold his monthly prescription of Dilaudid for $1000.
Sanchez also included the story of the oldest person ever charged for drug dealing in an upstate New York county. Laura Viehdeffer, 85 years old, was arrested after selling her hydrocodone to an undercover police officer. Viehdeffer was prescribed the drug because of severe arthritis and told prosecutors she sold the officer the drugs because she “felt sorry for her”.
Based on these reports, are our seniors becoming drug dealers in their golden years?
I took this question to Don Drake, a retired licensed addictions clinician in Massachusetts and the former director of an Addictions Treatment Program for HIV/AIDS patients at Shattuck Hospital in Boston. Drake has nearly 30 years’ experience working in the addictions field overseeing treatment programs in Philadelphia, Hartford, CT, Providence, RI, Boston and Fall River, Massachusetts. He also does presentations for my firm’s community education programming on senior health issues. He seemed to have a much different take on this issue.
“Before we jump to this conclusion, there needs to be some context and perspective in these reports”, said Drake. “What’s missing in these reports are the histories of those seniors arrested. The media loves to grab stories like these and blow them out of proportion. In my time as an addictions counselor and program administrator, seeing seniors, especially from urban areas, come into treatment was nothing unusual. It’s getting a lot of attention now given the ongoing opioid epidemic.”
Drake continued, “Here’s the context I’m referring to – there are many seniors living in low cost subsidized housing in urban areas that have histories of addiction disorders or criminal justice involvement. Because of this, many are not new to illicit street behaviors so selling prescribed medications for money is not a new behavior.”
“But, we also need to be aware of another fact – there is certainly an increase in addiction disorders among all socioeconomic classes and especially among those who are middle aged, so as they move into their senior years, they will take these behaviors with them and we will see an increase in illegal activities among this group.”
So, is this really much ado about nothing?
“Not at all. This is a serious issue that must be monitored. Those who are in recovery or have attempted to put the criminal justice system behind them are easily lured into selling their medications that have been legally prescribed to them for the ailments that come with aging. With a single Oxycodone tablet fetching up to $30 on the street, it’s an easy way to make ends meet when you’re on a fixed income.”
Drake said the problem, especially in urban areas with high crime and drug problems, is out of control, even with a big police and security presence.
“The dealers know when the SSI, Social Security and Veteran’s checks come in and stake out hospitals and pharmacies, waiting for seniors to come out with their prescriptions and offer money for them or they try to sell seniors drugs because they know they now have money in the bank. Just drive up Massachusetts Avenue or the area known sarcastically as the 'methadone mile' in Boston around the first of the month and what you see happening around hospitals, pharmacies and bus stops will sicken you.”
Drake said his biggest concern about the stories of “drug dealing seniors” are the real problems associated with the misuse and mishandling of prescription medications by seniors.
“I just don’t want people to believe that grandma and grandpa wake up one morning and decide to take the pill bottle out to the street and make some money. The real problem for most seniors is their medicine cabinet, what’s stored in it and who has access to the drugs contained inside”, he said.
“But”, he said, “if you see a loved one involved with strangers or notice that the bank account is being drained or bills not being paid, this should raise a red flag that needs to be pursued.”
Drake also has concerns about the primary focus of drug abuse being on opioids alone. Although they are a major problem, he states that there are other drugs that are in medicine cabinets that are lethal and easily abused.
“In my work with the senior population, a class of drugs known as the benzodiazepines were just as, if not more, problematic for senior citizens. These drugs are prescribed for sleep disorders or anxiety in the elderly and can have serious consequences. Ativan (Lorazepam), Klonopin (Clonazepam), Valium (Diazepam) and Xanax (Alprazolam), are, in my opinion, overly prescribed to seniors and a drug of choice for many addicts. Even more concerning about these drugs is that they can lead to falls and their side effects can mimic the symptoms of dementia.”
Drake said there are other drugs that also bear monitoring in the medicine cabinet.
“Seroquel, an anti-psychotic and commonly prescribed for bi-polar disorder or depression, are used by addicts for their sedatory and hallucinatory effects. Another drug that’s prescribed in huge amounts to seniors and widely abused by addicts and teens is Neurontin (gabapentin), which is prescribed for seizures and nerve pain, especially pain associated with neuropathy. For those who abuse it, Neurontin creates a euphoric mood that is compared to a marijuana-like high. Experience and research also shows that those who abuse opioids are more likely to also abuse Neurontin. So having knowledge of what a senior is prescribed, how it is used and where it is stored is something that most of us need to worry about with our loved ones.”
According to Drake, it’s important to keep things in perspective and monitor our seniors when it comes to the medications they take. Getting caught up in headlines can be misleading and can give many a false sense of security, allowing us to overlook small behaviors that should raise our concerns.
I also want to direct readers of my blog to this page of my website where we offer a community education series on elder law and elder health issues. Please check it out.
Next week, I will continue my conversation with Don Drake about the importance of hiring the right senior health aide especially for seniors who are taking multiple medications. You may be surprised by some of the issues he has dealt with in this area.
Attorney Connelly practices in the area of elder law. This area of law involves Medicaid planning and asset protection advice for those individuals entering nursing homes, planning for the possibility of disability through the use of powers of attorney for the both health care and finances, guardianship, estate planning, probate and estate administration, preparation of wills, living trusts and special or supplemental needs trusts. He represents clients primarily in the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) in 2008. Attorney Connelly is licensed to practice before the Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Federal Bars.