Connecting communities can aid in beating addiction

October 4, 2018

Our nation is suffering through an unprecedented public health crisis. Nearly 48,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2017, a far higher death rate than we ever experienced from HIV, guns or automobile accidents.

And no community has been spared from this epidemic. More than six Utahns die every week from opioid or heroin overdoses, and three rural Utah counties were recently identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as being among the most vulnerable to the opioid crisis.

But while no community has been left untouched, it is affecting every community in different ways. There is no single opioids crisis. There are hundreds.

In some states, prescription drugs are the cause of most overdoses, while in others most deaths are caused by illicit synthetic drugs like fentanyl.

The Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Project has also found a strong social component to the epidemic. Individuals who have either never married or are divorced represent a higher share of those dealing with opioid addiction compared to those who are more connected to their community. Single men with only a high school education have an opioid death rate almost three times higher than single women with the same level of education.

Considering how differently the epidemic is playing out in our nation’s many diverse communities, a one-size-fits-all solution is not the answer. Too often federal grant programs make emerging local solutions inflexible and unable to deliver unique treatments that suit local communities. These federal funding streams have little accountability and minimal measurement of their effectiveness.

This doesn’t mean there is no role for the federal government to play in fighting the opioid crisis. Quite the contrary. Already the Drug Enforcement Agency has played a key role working closely with the Utah Attorney General’s Office prosecuting drug cartels and sponsoring “Take Back Days” where Utahns can turn in unused prescription opioids for safe disposal.

The recent opioids bill that passed Congress also included new tools to fight the crisis, including strengthening the Customs and Border Protection’s authority to discover and destroy packages containing illegal controlled substances, establishing a system to stop suspicious orders of opioids from drug manufacturers, and requiring the FDA to update its process of assessing the safety and effectiveness of new drugs.

These new federal powers will help mitigate our opioid epidemic, but the real work solving this crisis will be at the local level. This fight will be won in governors’ offices, sheriffs’ offices, rehabilitation facilities, doctors’ offices, churches, classrooms and living rooms. This fight will be won by connecting our communities to make sure addiction doesn’t start, and on those rare occasions it does, to make sure recovery starts soon after.

And I have some good news: Utah is beginning to win this fight.

The Utah Opioid Task Force, which assembled experts from diverse fields, including medicine, government, treatment, recovery and law enforcement, has already been collaborating for nearly two years to identify community-based solutions to this crisis. Groups like the Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness, The Other Side Academy and the Utah Coalition for Opioid Overdose Prevention have been working alongside law enforcement agencies from Logan to Blanding to develop and execute local solutions to Utah’s opioid crisis. And these local solutions are working.

While opioid-related deaths rose 10 percent nationwide last year, they fell by almost 20 percent here in Utah. In fact, last year was the third year in a row that prescription opioid deaths declined in the Beehive State.

But we cannot rest on our laurels. There are still far too many individuals, families and communities suffering from this crisis.

That is why Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, DEA 360 Program, the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation and I are hosting the “Utah Solutions Summit: Instead” next Friday, Oct. 12, at the Vivint Smart Home Arena.

This summit will bring together community leaders, students, experts and those fighting for recovery from around the nation to share best practices and create better and more effective options so those impacted by the opioids crisis can choose connection instead of addiction.

Please join the fight and register for the “Utah Solutions Summit: Instead” here.

Originally published by Deseret News