Today I want to write about an extremely troubling problem our state is facing: Opiate abuse and addiction. According to the Utah Department of Health Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, in 2014, 32% of Utah adults aged 18 years and older had been prescribed an opioid pain medication in the previous 12 months. According to the CDC, Utah has gone from 10.6 drug poisoning deaths per 100,000 people in 1999 to 22.43 in in 2014. That is a doubling in our rate of drug overdoses in the last 15 years. Utah is not unique in this regard, but we are among the states suffering the most from this epidemic. In fact, Utah is currently NUMBER FIVE per capita in the nation for opioid related deaths, and Weber county is right up there with some of the most affected counties.
I could spout statistics all day that show how severe this problem is for our community, but I can also tell you that virtually everyone I’ve spoken to in the last few months has friends or family that have struggled because of the presence of opiates in this state, and I am not excluded from that statement.
As a result, I want to propose that we have an open and honest conversation about this problem, which impacts us all. I want us to stop shaming people who fall under this same, tragic track again and again. We all have family or friends who are affected by this epidemic. These people are, for the most part, productive members of our society, with strong family bonds and great futures, but they get sidelined by and hooked on opiates that are legally prescribed to them and very possibly temporarily needed, yet they quickly spiral into becoming addicts who will sacrifice their own and their families well-being because of the disease of addiction. They find themselves in dark and lonely places doing things they never could have imagined because they suffer through these addictions, isolated and unsupported.
We need to pull this subject out into the light and tell our friends and community members that suffer so, that we want to help them, we understand they are not at fault, we want to make sure they don’t die because of this problem, and that they are not alone in this monumentally difficult battle.
This is a public health crisis for our community, and I believe there are achievable steps we need to look at taking to mitigate it:
We need to reduce, at every turn, the unnecessary prescription of these these drugs in the first place. Thirty percent of all Utahns are being prescribed these highly addictive drugs for pain every year. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago. We need to figure out why these prescriptions are being written at such a high rate. It seems unlikely that the incidence of pain has increased so much in 20 years. Something else must be going on.
Accordingly, we need to look to alternative forms of pain management - we need to study and understand the viable alternatives to using opiates to manage pain. We may have unwittingly created a situation in this state where drugs that are less damaging and lethal (like alcohol and cannabis) have more stigma than a drug that is far more lethal, yet legally accessible, and culturally approved by a doctor’s prescription. If scientific data backs up the anecdotal remarks I’ve heard from many voters, then medical cannabis may be an option not only to reduce pain, it may even help with recovery from said opiate addictions. There is recent promising research on this issue and it bears following up: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/07/13/one-striking-chart-shows-why-pharma-companies-are-fighting-legal-marijuana/
We need to create safe spaces for those suffering from opiate addiction where they can access treatment without fear of stigma or arrest, where they have access to knowledgeable support, clean needles, and an understanding community. Additionally, those arrested for opiate-related offenses need our support and effective medical treatment, not our disdain and punishment.
We need to focus on effective, evidence-based treatments. I have been visiting local addiction treatment clinics as part of my research on this issue. Some appear to be doing a good job, but, our current approach is clearly not working. We need to survey the country and even the world to identify the most effective treatment models and our legislature needs to appropriate the money to help our existing or new clinics implement the most provenly effective treatment programs.
Naloxone is a drug that can save the life of a person in the midst of an opiate overdose. We need to make sure that every police officer, firefighter and paramedic is equipped with Naloxone and trained with how to use it to save a life. We also need to make sure that families who are suffering with this addiction have Naloxone at home, and that they can get it without fear of stigma. Naloxone saves lives.
This is a complex and urgent issue. It is also an issue I care about deeply. If you entrust me with your vote, I will make preventing opiate addiction and helping those afflicted a top priority.