AURORA | Over the past decade, corpses laid out on slabs at the Arapahoe County coroner’s office have increasingly shared something in common: prescription drugs.

The number of prescription-drug related deaths has shot up 86 percent in the past decade, and Coroner Kelly Lear-Kaul said prescription-drug overdoses now make up almost one quarter of her caseload. Homicides account for just 6 percent.

“These are preventable deaths and it is our responsibility to make every attempt to reduce these numbers,” Lear-Kaul said.

That steady uptick in prescription drug abuse has local officials ramping up efforts to get unused medications off the streets and urging doctors to rethink the way they prescribe often-abused medicine, particularly opiates.

Drug Drop

The task force — which is headed by Lear-Kaul, Sheriff Dave Walcher and Commissioner Bill Holen — started work last year and now includes officials from Kaiser Permanente, University of Colorado, Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health and Tri-County Health Department.

The group’s work includes a public awareness campaign targeted at doctors and the general public, as well as prescription drug take back efforts aimed at getting unwanted and unused drugs off the streets.

Last weekend, at three locations around the county, officials collected more than 700 pounds of unwanted drugs, Walcher said, which was about 30 pounds more than they collected during a similar event in April. The drugs are given to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and destroyed, he said.

The sheriff also has a permanent drop-off location set up in the lobby of the sheriff’s office at 13101 Broncos Parkway in Centennial. Walcher said that location, which he first set up a few months ago, is particularly helpful because it means people don’t have to wait for one of the handful of drop-off days scheduled throughout the year

“We are getting these out of people’s homes quicker,” he said.

Kristina Searles, whose brother, J.P. Carroll died two years ago from an interaction between two prescription drugs, said getting unwanted drugs out of the house is hugely important. Searles, whose family started the JP Prescription Drug Awareness Foundation to raise awareness about the dangers of mixing drugs, said holding onto pills when you no longer need them is a recipe for trouble. 

“It’s not just kids, you’re getting them away from friends, family, babysitters — people you don’t even think have a problem,” she said during a press conference last week announcing the county’s efforts.

Commissioner Holen said the issue has struck him closely, too, with his 23-year-old nephew picking up a prescription drug habit in college and later dying from prescription drug abuse.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Colorado ranks second-worst among states for prescription drug abuse. More than 255,000 people over the age of 12 years old abused opioids in 2013.

Holen said doctors, need to register for prescription drug monitoring programs that warn them of dangerous drug interactions and patients shopping for doctors. They also need to prescribe fewer drugs. If that means patients have to make several trips to the pharmacy if they run out, Holen said that is well worth it if it means fewer unwanted drugs on the street.

“It needs to be shouted out to these physicians: don’t do it the way you have been doing it,” he said.

Lear-Kaul said her office contacts doctors when their patients die of an overdose, but doctors rarely respond and if they do, they are often shocked to hear their patient had a problem.

Still, Lear-Kaul said, it is important for the coroner’s office to let those doctors know there was a problem. 

“We feel like its at least our obligation to do something,” she said.