Taking positive steps on opioid addiction

Published 10:10 am Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Our View

Young or old, rich or poor, opioid abuse is an unwelcome common denominator in our society — especially here in Tennessee
Abuse of opioids — which include illegal heroin and legal drugs such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and fentanyl — is now considered a national epidemic. People who may start with prescribed painkillers often move to illegal but easier-to-get or cheaper alternatives, such as heroin, thanks to accessible criminal networks.
In 2014, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, about 47,000 people died of drug overdoses, the majority of which are attributed to opioids. There were at least 1,263 people who died from overdoses in Tennessee.
Reducing opioid abuse is challenging to health care, government, law enforcement and community officials because it’s a public health crisis that crosses socioeconomic boundaries as well as industry and state lines.
Law enforcement officers say the problem in this region of the state is rooted in a variety of factors more far-reaching than access to prescriptions.
Selling painkillers on the street can be lucrative in areas that have seen job losses.
Oxycodone IR can sell for $30 to $40 per pill and OxyContin about $80 per pill, making it easy for some to net $30,000 a year and, in many cases, more than that, according to Tommy Farmer, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation special agent-in-charge and director of the Tennessee Methamphetamine and Pharmaceutical Task Force.
This week, Tom Vilsack, the chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will meet with state and local leaders in the Tennessee-Virginia border region as federal agencies look for local partners to combat opioid abuse in hard-hit rural areas across the nation. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to attend a Thursday meeting in Abingdon.
Federal officials are pushing a multi-pronged strategy that combines treatment, recovery support, economic development and criminal justice reform.
Officials at both the state and federal level admit that funding and treatment options are sorely lacking in Tennessee. They also realize that criminal action against abusers alone won’t turn the tide, and that it will require a comprehensive and coordinated effort at the local, state and national level.
Opioid abuse doesn’t just hurt the user. It hurts the community through increased crime and social problems. A statewide effort is indeed needed to devise a coordinated, achievable plan of action that targets both treatment and funding.
The epidemic has thrown hundreds of families into turmoil and financial calamity, clogged the courts and sent thousands of addicts to prison for drug-related crimes.
The irony of the crisis over opioid addiction is that it has largely developed out of an effort to relieve pain. But a well-intentioned effort to help people cope with pain has, in too many cases, become a path to addiction.
The crisis has to be addressed both in the doctors’ offices where the drug consumption starts and in the treatment programs where, with luck, it ends.
Opioid addiction is one of those rare issues upon which most people agree, no matter their political affiliation, that something must be done. Most of us also agree that the crisis needs to be addressed on the demand side through prevention and treatment. Past battles in the “war on drugs” have been fought largely on the supply side, through law enforcement and punishment. Enforcement is important, too, but the supply of prescription opioids flows largely from legitimate sources in the medical community.
Relieving pain is a worthy goal, but when painkillers create widespread addiction and lead to thousands of deaths by overdose, things have tipped over too far. We must use all the tools necessary to regain our balance and turn the numbers around. The numbers are proof of that.

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