drug use & abuse

dan dawson and brad zaun
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A three-member Senate panel Wednesday unanimously agreed to move a bill forward that would legalize needle exchange programs for people who inject drugs.

Needle exchange programs have been used in other states to prevent the spread of infectious diseases and help get drug users into treatment. In Iowa, it’s still illegal to distribute needles for drug use.

syringe briefing
Katarina Sostaric / IPR

Advocates for a bill to legalize syringe exchange programs in Iowa told lawmakers Wednesday it would help mitigate some effects of increasing injection drug use in the state.

Dr. Chris Buresh, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Iowa, says dirty needles are spreading HIV, hepatitis C, and a bacterial infection that reaches the heart.

tom greene
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A three-member Senate panel is delaying a decision on a bill that would require all medical providers to electronically submit drug prescriptions to pharmacies.

Sen. Tom Greene, (R-Burlington), who worked as a pharmacist, says the bill would help curb the abuse of opioids and other controlled substances.

“I’ve so blatantly had people hand me a handwritten prescription the doctor wrote for 10 sleeping pills, and they changed the one to a four,” Greene says. “Easy change.”

supplies in parking lot
Katarina Sostaric / IPR

On a below-freezing night in Cedar Rapids, three med school students meet in a parking lot and start unloading boxes from a crammed car trunk.

They sort through condoms, housing paperwork, fentanyl test strips, and vials filled with a drug that reverses opioid overdoses. There are booklets about safe injection practices, test kits for HIV and hepatitis C, and needles, syringes and cookers.

The first person to stop by is Dennis Brown, a former drug user who tries to help people who are still struggling with addiction.

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State and federal public health officials agree Iowa needs a syringe exchange program to slow the spread of hepatitis C and prevent a possible HIV outbreak among Iowans who inject opioids and meth.

pills in a bottle
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The Iowa Board of Pharmacy has filed a bill that would help fill gaps in the state’s system for tracking prescription opioid suppliers in an effort to identify patients who might be abusing prescription painkillers.

Pharmacies currently have to submit information to the Iowa prescription monitoring program (PMP) when they dispense opioids. The pharmacy board’s bill would require prescribers who supply opioids to also add that information to the PMP.

pills in a bottle
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The number of opioid-related deaths is expected to increase in Iowa this year compared to 2016. There were 180 opioid-related deaths in Iowa last year, and the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) is projecting that number will hit 201 by the end of 2017.

Eighty-six Iowans died of opioid overdoses in 2016, and IDPH expects about 96 opioid overdose deaths in 2017. 

pills in a bottle
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A new federal grant will fund a statewide media campaign to educate teenagers and young adults about the dangers of misusing prescription opioids.

Janet Nelson at the Iowa Department of Public Health says the campaign will work to fill gaps in knowledge about prescription drugs.

"Youth, a lot of times, feel that if a drug is prescribed by a doctor, it can't be harmful," Nelson says. 

The grant will also help three counties—Polk, Jasper and Scott—develop additional strategies to reduce problems with prescription opioid abuse.

Tom Wolf / flickr

Iowa’s attorney general has struck a new deal with a drugmaker to make an opioid overdose reversal drug more affordable.

Public agencies in Iowa, including law enforcement and public hospitals, will pay less for naloxone through a rebate agreement with Amphastar.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller says first responders in the state have been using naloxone to save lives.

pills in a bottle
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A new report from the University of Iowa makes policy recommendations for reducing prescription opioid abuse and overdose deaths.

Carri Casteel, UI associate professor and lead author of the report, says Iowa's prescription opioid overdose death rate is lower than in many other states, but it has quadrupled in the past 20 years. 

photo submitted

In 2004, Mandy Martinson was addicted to methamphetamine. She helped her drug dealer boyfriend as a way to feed her habit, but when her home was raided and drugs were found she received a 15 year mandatory minimum sentence in federal prison. She received clemency last year and is now home rebuilding her life. During this Talk of Iowa interview, host Charity Nebbe talks with Martinson about her long road to freedom and recovery.

pills in a bottle
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A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows per-capita opioid prescriptions decreased in the U.S. from 2010 to 2015. But in one-third of Iowa's counties, prescriptions increased over the same time period.

The CDC encourages doctors to reduce opioid prescribing when treating pain because these medications are associated with abuse and overdose rates. The opioid-related hospitalizations and deaths in Iowa have been on the rise. 

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Two eastern Iowa nonprofits will offer free naloxone —a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose—starting June 1. It's the first time the overdose reversal drug will be available for free in Iowa.

The Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition and Quad Cities Harm Reduction will distribute naloxone each week in Cedar Rapids, Davenport and Iowa City.

The drug has been available at pharmacies, but the cost can prevent people from obtaining it. One dose costs about $150 with insurance.  

Tom Wolf / flickr

Hy-Vee announced Wednesday it is now offering over-the-counter naloxone—a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose—in Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin and South Dakota.

Naloxone can be administered as a nasal spray or an injection to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. A state order allows Iowa pharmacies to go through training to be able to sell the drug to a customer without a prescription.


The Iowa Department of Public Health has received a federal grant to expand treatment for opioid abuse across the state.

About $5.4 million will go to different communities over two years to improve treatment through medication and counseling.

Monica Wilke-Brown is project director for the grant. She says previous opportunities for providers to learn more about treating opioid abuse disorders were concentrated in just a few areas.


Iowa is making improvements on alcohol use, but still has a ways to go when it comes to bullying. That’s according to the director of the recent Iowa Youth Survey, which samples 6th, 8th and 11th graders every two years.  

In 2016 youth drinking in Iowa continued to decline, especially among 11th graders.

In 2012, more than 26.4 percent of high school juniors reported having a drink in the past 30 days. In 2016 this number dropped to 21.3 percent.

WIKICOMMONS / Kevin Schuchmann

Iowans are being encouraged to clean out their medicine cabinets this Saturday by taking unwanted and expired medications to more than 100 disposal sites.

tom miller
Joyce Russell/IPR

Iowa’s attorney general is joining colleagues from several other states in urging the president and congressional leaders to maintain funding for drug treatment in their effort to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA). 

The 20 attorneys general say changes to certain ACA provisions could eliminate billions of dollars of funding for drug treatment in the midst of an opioid epidemic.

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Legislation to address Iowa’s deadly opioid epidemic passed the Iowa House today by a wide margin, but lawmakers turned down a Democratic amendment to make it harder to fraudulently acquire prescription painkillers.   

The bill will require all doctors to register with the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.  

Flickr / Vance Shtraikh

Legislation that allows private companies in Iowa to test employees’ hair for drug use has passed out of the House Labor Committee along party lines with Republican support. 

"This is about testing for chronic long-term use," says Representative Jarad Klein of Washington County. "Is there a chronic long-term history of abuse of an illegal substance that would give them pause?"

Democrats raise concerns regarding the fairness and the efficacy of testing.


Iowa’s laws on drug-endangered children would be updated to address the state’s opioid epidemic under legislation the House and Senate are considering.  

Authorities say more kids are being affected by their caregivers’ abuse of painkillers.  

Currently, Iowa’s child protection policies focus heavily on methamphetamine, its manufacture, distribution, and use.    

Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media

A doctor handed Melissa Morris her first opioid prescription when she was 20 years-old. She had a cesarean section to deliver her daughter, and to relieve post-surgical pain her doctor sent her home with Percocet. On an empty stomach, she took one pill and laid down on her bed.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh my god. Is this legal? How can this feel so good?’” Morris recalls.

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From 2001 to 2014, there was a 6-fold increase in the total number of deaths due to heroin.  Iowa has seen a similar spike in opioid-related deaths.

Officials say emergency room visits in Iowa related to opioid overdose have increased more than 200 percent over the last 10 years. Drug overdose deaths in Iowa more than tripled during that time. 

Joyce Russell/IPR

The director of the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy is watching as President-elect Donald Trump makes key appointments affecting drug enforcement.  

He’s optimistic strong anti-drug administrators will be named.  

Steve Lukan says Iowans in the drug enforcement and treatment community have noted the appointment of  Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General.   

Lukan says there’s speculation the Trump administration may have different ideas about enforcing federal marijuana laws than the current administration.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf

Iowans with family members who are addicted to heroin or narcotic painkillers now have an easy way to acquire a potentially life-saving antidote, after action by the medical director of the Iowa Department of Public Health.   

Patricia Quinlisk has issued a standing order so that any family member who demonstrates a need can go to a local pharmacy and purchase naloxone which can reverse the effects of an overdose. 

In an overdose situation, naloxone reverses the drug-induced slowing of the respiratory system.   


Women who use legal drugs such as alcohol during pregnancy could be reported for possible child abuse under proposed legislation state lawmakers may be considering in January.   

Currently, mandatory reporters of child abuse must speak up if it appears an infant is born with exposure to illegal drugs. 

However, mandatory reporting does not kick in if the baby is showing signs of withdrawal from other substances.

Joyce Russell/IPR

A workgroup studying how to protect drug-endangered children is considering changes in state law to address caregivers involved with illegal and legal drugs.   

The current law was designed to protect kids in homes where methamphetamines were being used, sold, or manufactured.           

Under a proposed bill, a wider variety of controlled substances could lead to a child abuse assessment.     

Janee Harvey with the DHS Child Welfare Bureau says currently cocaine, heroin, or opioids are treated differently from meth.

Cabrera Photo/flickr

Children living in homes where caregivers are using, selling, or manufacturing drugs may see new protections as a result of a working group convening soon in Des Moines. 

The group will study the issue after a bill filed this year on drug-endangered children failed to pass. 

An Iowa father testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday morning  in favor of curbing synthetic drug use. 

Mike Rozga of Indianola says his son David died by suicide after a suffering severe hallucinations in reaction to synthetic marijuana.

He says law enforcement and prosecutors don’t have the tools they need for combating synthetic drugs, which are often sold commercially.

New reforms to Iowa sentencing code in the areas of child endangerment, non-violent drug offense, and robbery were signed into law on Thursday. Gov. Terry Branstad calls the legislation "a balanced approach" aimed at making Iowa’s criminal justice system more equitable.

Child Endangerment

People convicted of child endangerment resulting in death in Iowa now must serve 30 to 70 percent of their sentence before they can be paroled. Though the crime has the sentence of 50 years, offenders have been immediately eligible for parole.