LITTLE ROCK — Law enforcement officials said today that a new statewide database designed to track prescription narcotic purchases should help combat the rising problem of prescription drug abuse in Arkansas.

"It’s a key component," state Drug Director Fran Flener said after a panel discussion on the problem in Arkansas. "It’s another tool to stop this abuse."

The Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, which is currently being developed by the state Department of Health, was approved by the Legislature in 2011 and signed into law by Gov. Mike Beebe. It is to be fully operational March 1, 2013.

The purpose of the program, Flener and others said at Thursday’s Arkansas Prescription Drug Summit, is to help prevent the misuse, abuse and diversion of controlled substances.

Flener said during the panel discussion that a 2007 study ranked Arkansas first among the states in abuse of prescription pain medications by children 12 to 17 years old. Another study, she said, found prescription drug abuse was more prevalent in rural areas of the state.

Conner Eldridge, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, said Thursday’s gathering of law enforcement and others at the daylong event was important because sharing information and resources is a major key in combating the problem.

"This is something that is very important … to us from a prosecutorial standpoint, and to all of us here, because of the seriousness of this issue," Eldridge said.

William Bryant, assistant special agent-in-charge with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said the state needs a prescription drug monitoring program because many of the drug users currently get their prescriptions in the Houston-area and then travel to Arkansas and target small drug stores, which they know rarely have electronic databases.

Bryant told a crowd of more than 500 that methamphetamine use and trafficking remains the No. 1 problem in the state, while abuse of prescription drugs, especially the painkiller hydrocodone, ranks second.

Oxycodone, methadone and cough syrup with codeine also are major problems, he said.

Another relatively new phenomenon is dealers who traditionally dealt only with cocaine and marijuana are now also dealing prescription pain medications because they are relatively cheap to obtain and have a high resale value.

"It’s a money-making business for them," he said.

Dr. Karl Wagenhauser, an emergency room physician and medical director for LifeNet Emergency Services in Hot Springs, said he is seeing a rising number of methadone overdoses, as well as a general rise in abuse of prescription drugs.

"We’ve got over 160 physicians in Garland County … we’ve got over 30 pharmacies," Wagenhauser said. "None of them communicate with each other."

Wagenhauser said some of the clinics and pharmacies in Garland County are beginning to share information in an effort to prevent people from going from pharmacy to pharmacy seeking prescriptions for pain medications.

"That’s why we need this prescription monitoring program," he said.

Flener said later the program is being developed with a $373,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

"I think once we get it up and it’s going and people see the value of it, hopefully there is going to be some more funding coming down the pike," she said.

On Saturday, law enforcement agencies across the state will participate in the fourth statewide prescription drug take back. People are urged to clean out their medicine cabinets and turn in their unused, expired or unwanted prescription medications.