Katy Nesbitt
The La Grande Observer

On Wednesday, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River) made a stop at the Wallowa County’s Sheriff’s Office to talk about the rising prescription drug addiction crisis and the county’s efforts to combat it.

To give Walden an idea of the effectiveness of a prescription drug collection program sponsored by local law enforcement, officers piled half a dozen banker boxes and several two-gallon plastic bags on a conference room table — six months of pills voluntarily deposited into a receptacle at the sheriff’s office by members of the community.

“When these 55-gallon bags come in, the officers team up and empty all the pill containers and condense the contents,” Sheriff Steve Rogers said.

Eventually the boxes and bags of prescriptions pills will be transported via U.S. mail or driven by a law enforcement officer to a high-security incineration site in the Oregon Coast Range, Rogers said.

Enterprise Police Officer George Kohlepp is on the front lines of the local drug crisis.

He said the big thing now is an anti-seizure medication called Gabapentin that is also used for nerve damage from shingles. The drug is also prescribed for a long list of non-FDA-approved uses, including alcohol and cocaine withdrawal, excessive sweating, hiccups, restless leg syndrome, headaches, hot flashes and fibromyalgia.

“We get bottles with as many as 500 to 700 pills,” Kohlepp said, which he said illustrates the issue of over-prescribing happening across the nation.

Kohlepp said law enforcement previously mixed the pills with vinegar and put them in a dumpster, but mailing them or an officer driving them across the state is a much better system.

“This is a valuable community service,” Nic Powers, CEO of Winding Waters Clinic in Enterprise, said. “Even clinic staff members are bringing their prescriptions down.”

As an officer who often deals with drug use on the job, Kohlepp said he asks people what they are using and what they have mixed together. He said a lot of homespun chemistry takes place, sometimes using household chemicals.

Because many drug users mix their own concoctions at home, Rogers said officers are no longer field testing drugs — everything goes to a lab.

Rogers said to the best of his knowledge only one person has died of an opiate overdose in the county, but Dr. Liz Powers of Winding Waters Clinic said the county’s emergency medical service personnel have frequently administered Narcan to patients, a drug used to reverse an opioid overdose.

All of the Wallowa County Sheriff’s Office and Enterprise Police Department vehicles carry Narcan, and according to Nic Powers, Enterprise and Joseph schools keep the drug on hand.

Mike Farley, pharmacist at Winding Waters Clinic, said distributing Narcan to officers and schools was an idea pushed by a resident at the clinic from Oregon Health Sciences University, Nick West.

“Nick looked at our opioid rate, and (saw that) Wallowa County was in the top five in the state for opioid prescriptions,” Farley said. “Two hundred and forty-one prescriptions were written per 1,000 county residents.”

See more in Friday's edition of The Observer.