AUSTIN - (KXAN) - The crime lab at the Texas Department of Public Safety is finding a significant presence of prescription or illegal drugs in blood tested in DWI cases.
While it doesn't keep data on specific drugs and so cannot break down whether there are more prescription drug abuse cases, the lab is seeing some of the more common drugs, said Tom Vinger, DPS spokesman.
"We're definitely seeing a fair amount of involvement in prescription drug testing. And certainly some of the more common drugs: Soma, Xanax, hydrocodone," Vinger said.
DPS points to the prevalence of police no-refusal operations which have brought in more blood to be analyzed.
Vinger said, "So there's now evidence to test, not only for alcohol but for drugs, illegal or prescription that wasn't there before."
In 2010, there were about six thousand cases. Two years later, that was up to more than 7-thousand.
The workload has prompted the Austin lab to assign three additional personnel and reallocate positions to deal with the demand. And, for the next two years, the agency is requesting about a dozen additional forensic scientists to analyze blood alcohol and controlled substance cases.
That does not include the cost of replacing aging equipment or buying new analysis hardware.
So who is getting behind the wheel doped up on prescription meds?
One man who spoke with KXAN, Scott Lynch, described being a danger to himself on the road.
"Whenever you drive in that state, the best possible outcome you can hope for is a wreck, for yourself," he said.
Lynch says he would take more than 10 pills a day, every day.
"If I even had the smallest sense of my buzz going away I was doing anything I could to bring the buzz back," he said.
And he was only 17. Lynch says he started abusing prescription drugs like Xanax after he said the thrill of alcohol and marijuana wore off. Then he started combining, looking for that next high.
One winter night in 2006, a week after his birthday Lynch got behind the wheel of his car, ignoring his friends' warnings and headed for home in East Austin.
"At one point I even remember forgetting that I was driving," he said. For the most part it was a blackout, I remember bits and pieces of trying to drive home. I can't even remember the wreck to be honest. I just remember cops in my face, talking to me, asking me questions."
A four-year prison sentence and two more years later, Lynch says he's clean. Today, this 24-year-old is dedicated to helping other addicts and their families, working as an admissions specialist at Austin Recovery, a non-profit help center.
But it's not just the hardcore addicts looking for a high who are driving impaired on our roads. Addiction specialists point to what they call the accidentally drug-dependent motorist. That could be anybody. They could be in the vehicle next to you, or right behind you.
They say that could be someone who might decide to self-dose prescription medicine as the effects of the prescribed dose appear to wear off, or to ease chronic pain.
They may be unaware they are getting behind the wheel of their car with more than the recommended amount of their prescription flooding their system. And that is where the danger of impairment lies, said Debbie Hooks a nurse manager at Austin Recovery's detox unit.
She compares it to having several glasses of alcohol.
"You can't be responsible for driving a 4,000-pound vehicle if you don't have the response time and the reaction time, said Hooks.
More and more the center is seeing so-called regular people come in, hooked on the meds their doctors originally prescribed.
"It's a natural part of everyday life, Hooks said. ‘I take my vitamin, I take my pain pill.' And then you get in the car and some people don't even realize they're impaired."
Hooks says she has seen patients at Austin Recovery who were taking up to 30 pills a day of the pain suppressant Vicodin. That's five times the regular dose. A common explanation, she says? The dosage didn't work anymore, so the patient simply had to take more.
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