ALBANY, Ga. -- Drug and health care authorities say that abuse of prescription drugs is rapidly growing throughout Southwest Georgia and has become the "silent epidemic" in the drug war nationwide.
While marijuana, methamphetamine and cocaine dominate news coverage of drug arrests, a more subtle -- yet no less deadly -- form of drug abuse is growing in popularity among teens and adults alike -- prescription drugs.
Albany-Dougherty Drug Unit Commander Maj. Bill Berry says that abuse of prescription drugs doesn't command the same news coverage as other types of drugs because it often goes unreported or underreported and carries less of social stigma.
"For some reason there is thought out there that because something is in a pill bottle, it's somehow OK for everyone to take," Berry said. "The reality is that a lot of those things -- Xanax, Hydrocodone, Percoset -- are just as deadly as cocaine."
For people between the ages of 14 and 25, a growing fad is pill or "pharm" parties, where its BYOP -- bring your own pills -- to mix in a bowl with others. Participants then grab an assortment and take them.
The practice is dangerous and deadly, especially since users don't have a clue what they're getting.
"There could be anything from cholesterol medicine to pain killers and many of them don't react well together or with alcohol, which is also part of the party in most cases," Berry said.
Barely three years ago, Jarrett Wills died after investigators believe he got sick from taking prescription pills at a party and was dropped off at a house rather than to a hospital.
Wills' death illustrates the importance of knowing about prescription drugs and taking them only when properly prescribed.
According to the CDC, middle-aged adults are far more likely to die from improper use of prescription medications than other age groups.
"Unintentional overdoses of narcotic pain medications such as Methadone, Oxycodone and Hydrocodone claim more lives of adults aged 40 through 49 than cocaine and heroin," said Dr. Jacqueline Grant, director of the Southwest Public Health District.
Grant says that inadvertent poisonings from prescription medications cause 700,000 emergency room visits and 120,000 hospitalizations each year.
Proper education and vigilance by parents and guardians over their medicines will go a long way to preventing incidents of injury or death from prescription medicine problems, Berry said.
"The problem with this is the ease of access," Berry said. "Kids can just go into the medicine cabinet, take a couple pills and stick them in their pocket and be on their way without anyone really noticing.
"We, as parents, have to do more to keep those medicines out of the reach of young people not just because of young children getting a hold of them, but because older kids may be looking for them."