By Jeff Todd

DENVER (CBS4) – After seeing a rise in usage and deaths, the federal government and Colorado leaders have worked for the past three years to lower or at least curb prescription drug addictions and heroin use.

Even as efforts began, it was a leading cause of death in the state in 2014.

“There were 870 people who died of an overdose,” said Dr. Nancy Van DeMark. “What we’re finding is the rates of overdose deaths have exceeded those of traffic fatalities.

The state is working on prevention education and medication programs.

“We’re beginning to contain the problem. Colorado has moved from second in the country for prescription misuse to sixth. More alarmingly the use of heroin is continuing to trend upward,” Van DeMark said.

Officials say the problem starts with a prescription or even a person taking a pill they don’t know anything about. Prescription drug addictions lead to heroin because it can be cheaper and easier to get.

“A lot of times they (addicts) are not aware of what they’ve begun to use and its impact. They actually walk in the door and sometimes asking ‘Que paso?’ ‘What happened to me?’ This is where I started and this is what happened to me,” said Marcela Paiz, who runs the outpatient IDEA center.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

“It’s amazing to me how much more accessible this has become than alcohol ever was,” said Paiz.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

The IDEA Center specializes in rehabilitation cases stemming from criminal cases. Most often they’re helping minority addicts. Paiz says he tries to get the addict’s family to help in the recovery.

“It’s some type of taboo that’s been placed over them sometimes some kind of hex. That’s not what it is; it is the abuse of a substance that has become an addiction,” Paiz said.

Marcela Paiz (credit: CBS)

Marcela Paiz (credit: CBS)

The statistics on addicts tends to show young men as the most susceptible group, but nurses say there is no demographic untouched by addiction to opioids.

“It’s a person that has a job that has a family but is struggling. You don’t know the person you’re riding the bus with is addicted and we see all of that here in the clinic so it’s really hard,” said Herendira Gonzalez, a nurse at Denver Health Medical Center’s Methadone Dispensary.

CBS4's Jeff Todd interviews Herendira Gonzalez (credit: CBS)

CBS4’s Jeff Todd interviews Herendira Gonzalez (credit: CBS)

“By taking the methadone that replaces and curbs the cravings for those substances,” she said, but added it’s not a silver bullet for addiction. The nurses often see people relapse.

“It’s a struggle, for a lot of them. Some do better than others,” said Gonzalez. “We don’t only give them medicine, I work at the dispensary, but we have councilors and psychiatrists, and that’s part of the program. They can’t take the medicine and not talk to the councilors.”

While the state works to educate more people, especially teens, to the dangers of heroin and opioids, many on the front lines know the fight will take time.

“It’s an addiction so it’s not going to be a plateau sometimes it is but you may relapse or you may stay clean the rest of their life,” said Gonzalez.

RELATED: Take Back Day For Unwanted, Expired Prescription Medications

Saturday is a drug takeback day throughout Colorado. Officials say the best way to prevent prescription abuse is by getting harmful drugs out of the house. You can find a drop off location near you here.

Jeff Todd joined the CBS4 team in 2011 covering the Western Slope in the Mountain Newsroom. Since 2015 he’s been working across the Front Range in the Denver Headquarters. Follow him on Twitter @CBS4Jeff.

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