Valerie McKeon traced her addiction to a bottle of Lortab prescribed to her when she was 17 and had a tooth pulled.
She took one, then got sick then set them aside. Four years later, though, as a 21-year-old mother, she came across that bottle again, and took another one, believing it would help her sleep, as she was having troubles in her life at the time.
“I remember thinking before I went to sleep that night that I found the answer to all my problems,” the now 33-year-old Schenectady resident said Monday at an event headed by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
But it wasn’t an answer. What McKeon got was 12 years of addiction that quickly progressed from pills to heroin. She is now completing a program with New Choices Recovery Center in Schenectady and has been clean for five months.
Schumer was in Colonie on Monday with McKeon and others at Capital Region BOCES to announce a new push for greater nationwide safeguards on prescription medications like the drug McKeon received. Also present were Albany County District Attorney David Soares and Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple.
The new safeguards proposed by Schumer, dubbed the Safe Prescribing Act of 2013, would reclassify hydrocodone, which is prescribed under names like Lortab, as a Schedule II controlled substance nationwide. The new designation would require a written or electronic prescription that must be signed by a practitioner, as well as other safeguards.
The goal is to reduce the amount of pills that get onto the black market and onto streets in New York and elsewhere.
Hydrocodone got the higher classification earlier this year in New York state, officials noted. But the lower standards of other states still impacts New York, as pills from the other states make their way here.
Schumer noted the drugs have a place in medicine. They serve as important pain killers that provide relief for people.
But that also makes abuse of them harder to combat. “It’s time to balance the needs of patients that rely on these drugs — no one is saying get rid of them — with those that are putting their lives and surrounding communities at risk,” he said.
Schumer noted cases like McKeon’s, where prescription hydrocodone and opioids serve as a gateway to drugs like heroin.
Prescription drug abuse is on the rise, Schumer’s office said, citing the Upstate New York Poison Control Center. In the Capital Region, a total of 1,452 cases of prescription drug abuse were reported in 2011, including 208 cases in Schenectady County and 56 cases in the much less populous Schoharie County.
Also speaking at the event was Stuart I. Rosenblatt, executive director of New Choices, where McKeon has sought help.
Rosenblatt said more than a third of those who go to New Choices are addicted to opiates.
He said most of them had started with prescription drug abuse as teens.
“What’s really unfortunate is both parents and youth share a misconception that because a doctor prescribes it and a pharmacist dispenses it, it’s somehow safer than street drugs,” Rosenblatt said. “We all know quite tragically that such is not the case.”
McKeon finally got help through a friend after a series of overdoses. She has since gone through a 28-day inpatient program and is now nearing the end of her stay in a halfway house.
She now has a job and a life that she never thought she’d have again, something she thanks New Choices for. She said she’s grateful to everyone who gives people like her a second chance.
“I’m 33 now,” McKeon said. “This has been over 10 years of struggling with this. If I had known what that bottle of pills, where it could bring me, I would have thrown them away immediately. I would have never done this.”