KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Tourists come to Missouri for its rural splendor and urban charm, but Missouri has something else to offer that many argue is feeding a silent epidemic.
Mike Ginter remembers the lowest point.
"This is where you end up. This is rock bottom, waking up every day with 20 other people in the same position," he says as he shows you the Missouri River, beneath the I-229 Bridge near downtown St. Joe, Missouri.
Ginter managed a phone store, had good friends and a bright future. Until his partner started sharing a painkiller with him. Soon that good life gave way to addiction, and a desperate need for more pills.
"It's not 'I have to go to the bathroom.' It's not 'I have to get something to eat.' It's 'where am I going to get my pill," Ginter remembers about waking up each morning.
So desperate, he turned to theft to earn pills from a dealer in St. Joe. When he got busted for shoplifting and spent four months in jail, then rehab, it didn't help. He turned to selling himself for gay sex to earn enough money to buy more pills:
"It just made you feel trashy," he said.
Ginter isn't alone. Drug overdose deaths have more than doubled nationwide in the last 14 years. Half of those, about 22,000 annual deaths, are prescription drug related.
In Buchanan County, Drug Strike Force investigator Terry White estimates 30 percent of his unit's work these days involves prescription drug enforcement.
"It's easy money. And it's legal to obtain," White notes. "There's a lot of dealers, even though they use meth, they deal the pills because it's safer for them to deal."
To combat that, states have implemented Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs. While they vary, essentially they require doctors to input prescriptions on certain controlled medications, such as pain pills and mood altering meds, into a state database. Doctors and pharmacists can access the database to determine a patient's history, which helps prevent pill shopping and alerts medical professionals to possible addictive behaviors.
"There are studies that have shown it's effective in reducing the number of people who engage in what we call pill shopping," said Bob Twillman, Executive Director of the American Academy of Pain Management.
Twillman has helped states, including Kansas, set up what are known as PDMP's.
In fact every state has a pill tracking program; every state but Missouri. And because of that, White says pill shoppers are crossing the border in droves.
"They're coming from as far as Florida, Georgia, Kentucky; driving halfway across the U.S., and they're being told 'go to Missouri,’" he sighs. "It's politics."
And no one knows that better than Sikeston, Missouri Republican Representative Hollly Rehder. For three years this mom has either sponsored or co-sponsored a pill tracking measure. A very personal crusade; at 17 her daughter Rachel became addicted to a painkiller when she cut her finger working at a restaurant. Abuse of prescription drugs led to harder drug use, and for 12 years she battled the addiction.
"This is not the addiction in the back alley of the big cities," Rehder said. "This is rural America. This is across all social backgrounds."
But Rehder ran into opposition from a fellow conservative, ironically a physician by training.
Dr. Rob Schaaf is no longer practicing medicine, but the St. Joseph Republican argues the many shouldn't face having their privacy invaded because of the few.
"These programs are government databases, where every citizen’s controlled substances are listed and there are 30,000 registrants in the state who would have access to that database," he said.
Senator Schaaf, who also worries about hackers and stolen data, used the power of the senate filibuster to block the bill in 2012.
Last session he offered a compromise: let the state collect the data, but just flag behavior for doctors and pharmacists without specific details, and then destroy the data after 90 days. Pill tracking supporters say that is unworkable, and the attempt died again in Jefferson City.
"Somebody has to do it," Schaaf claims. "Somebody has to stand up for our liberty that's continually eroded."
"But my response to that, is without this program we have a threat to people's lives. And a threat to people's lives outweighs a threat to someone's liberty," chimes in Twillman.
Rehder agrees and will bring the issue up again in the 2016 legislature.
"Well I believe in miracles, so I'm not giving up on Dr. Schaaf, that's for sure," she said. And she is working to help her daughter stay clean. Now 30, Rachel is back home and returning her life to normal after time in a Nashville area treatment facility.
"She’s starting to get cheerful again. She's starting to smile more," she said.
Ginter is no longer living on the banks of the Missouri River, and says he's drug free. A heart issue brought on by drug use, scared him straight.
He's now studying for his real estate license, and has reconciled with his family. He's also going public with his story to help others and he hopes to see a pill tracking bill passed in the Show Me State.
"It's very dirty and it was a very shameful part of my life. But I'm glad I don't ever have to go back to that again,” he said.
Pill tracking supporters hope they can help keep others from that life too.