Ad­dress­ing a na­tional health emer­gency

What the Ohio opi­oid cri­sis can teach Wash­ing­ton

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Bob McEwen

Very few places in Amer­ica have been harder hit by the opi­oid cri­sis than the state of Ohio. Ac­cord­ing to CDC data, the Buck­eye State ranked sec­ond, only be­hind neigh­bor­ing West Vir­ginia, in over­dose death rates per 100,000 res­i­dents in 2016. Over the last few years these mor­tal­ity rates have con­tin­ued to climb, de­spite new re­stric­tions on pre­scrip­tion painkillers and bet­ter treat­ment for those strug­gling with ad­dic­tion. As we seek to ad­dress this na­tional health emer­gency it’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand what is driv­ing these over­dose deaths and what can we do to stop it.

Opi­oid ad­dic­tion in Ohio has brought public ser­vices to the brink and had a sig­nif­i­cant eco­nomic toll on the state. Po­lice and fire de­part­ments are deal­ing with a spike in over­dose-re­lated calls, hos­pi­tals are re­ceiv­ing more pa­tients than they can han­dle and even the state’s foster care sys­tem is feel­ing the strain as more and more chil­dren are sep­a­rated from drug ad­dicted par­ents who can no longer care for them. A new study from the Ohio State Univer­sity mean­while, finds that opi­oid epi­demic costs the state $6.6 to $8.8 bil­lion an­nu­ally, roughly the same

amount as the state’s ed­u­ca­tion bud­get.

Much of the driv­ing force be­hind Ohio’s re­cent spike in over­doses is pow­er­ful syn­thetic opi­oids such as fen­tanyl and car­fen­tanil. Fifty times more potent than heroin, just 2 mil­ligrams of fen­tanyl can be deadly while an amount of car­fen­tanil equal to a sin­gle grain of salt is enough to kill.

As our govern­ment cracked down on the avail­abil­ity of le­gal pre­scrip­tion painkillers ad­dicts turned to street drugs, man­u­fac­tured by Chinese lab­o­ra­to­ries and smug­gled in by Mex­i­can drug car­tels to get their fix. Many times these users do not know what they’re get­ting. Fen­tanyl is fre­quently used to lace other drugs, such as heroin, to pro­vide a more pow­er­ful high and in­crease prof­its for the drug car­tels.

Other times syn­thetic opi­oids are used to create knock­off pills such as “Mex­i­can oxy” that are stamped and col­ored to look like a pre­scrip­tion drug but are ac­tu­ally a dan­ger­ous com­bi­na­tion of heroin, mor­phine and fen­tanyl. Ei­ther way, the out­come is the same; drug users who don’t know what they’re deal­ing with and of­ten pay the price with their lives.

The rate at which these il­le­gal drugs have been cross­ing our bor­der is truly alarm­ing. A South Toledo man was re­cently sen­tenced to 10 years in prison for smuggling 13 pounds of fen­tanyl, enough to kill nearly 3 mil­lion peo­ple. At our South­ern bor­der mean­while, the flow of syn­thetic opi­oids has turned into a tsunami. In 2013 bor­der pa­trol agents sized just 2 pounds of fen­tanyl but by the end of 2017 that num­ber had surged to over 1500 pounds, a 75,000 per­cent in­crease.

De­spite these alarm­ing num­bers, much of the fo­cus in ad­dress­ing the opi­oid cri­sis to date has been on re­duc­ing the sup­ply and us­age of le­gal painkillers. While it is im­por­tant to re­view pre­scrib­ing meth­ods and ex­plore non-opi­oid al­ter­na­tives for pain treat­ment, this does noth­ing to counter one of the main drivers of cur­rent over­doses: syn­thetic opi­oids.

Elected and ap­pointed of­fi­cials in the state have taken ac­tion to rein in this cri­sis. In May of 2016 the Ohio De­part­ments of Health and Men­tal Health and Ad­dic­tion Ser­vices launched a multi-me­dia fen­tanyl public aware­ness cam­paign that warned Ohioans about the deadly drug. Sen­a­tor Rob Port­man has held hear­ings with a goal to crack down on the ease at which fen­tanyl is smug­gled through the US Postal Ser­vice. Steps are be­ing taken to com­bat this cri­sis but un­til a con­certed na­tion­wide ef­fort is made to take syn­thetic opi­oids off the street, the death toll will con­tinue to rise.

As Congress con­tin­ues their over­sight and in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the opi­oid cri­sis fac­ing our coun­try they would be wise to take note of the lessons learned in Ohio. The state is a bell­wether in many ways, and un­for­tu­nately it is no dif­fer­ent when it comes to the opi­oid cri­sis. Drug car­tels con­tinue to flood our streets with fen­tanyl so there must be a re­newed ef­fort at the lo­cal, state and fed­eral level to stop the traf­fick­ers and deal­ers and take this poi­son off our streets. There are many lessons Amer­ica can learn from the Buck­eye States’ strug­gle with the opi­oid cri­sis but this is one of the most im­por­tant.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY GREG GROESCH

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