May 11 2018
Our nation is struggling through one of the worst public health crises in its history. Approximately 64,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2016 and opioids accounted for nearly two-thirds of those deaths.
This plague has not spared Utah. In fact, Utah is one of the states hardest hit by the opioid crisis. On average, nearly six Utahns die every week from opioid overdoses and opioid deaths now outnumber deaths from motor vehicles and firearms.
This epidemic has affected every community in our great state; urban and rural, rich and poor, churchgoing and not. Practically every family, no matter where we come from, has a story to share about how this tragedy has touched our lives.
There is a power in that togetherness. Through our shared pain and experience, we can work together to identify solutions. In fact, we have already started.
Last May, District Agent in Charge of the State of Utah Brian Besser and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes brought together leaders in law enforcement, medicine, and the law to form the Utah Opioid Task Force. And just this last week, I joined this Task Force as a co-chair.
At the time of the Task Force creation, I was working with my staff on the Joint Economic Committee to produce an in-depth study on the numbers behind the opioid crisis as part of the Social Capital Project.
According to my Social Capital Project report, while four out of five heroin addicts began their addictions with heroin in the 1960s, today three out of four heroin addicts began abusing drugs with opioids obtained through a doctor or through someone else’s prescription. The report also found that 40 percent of opioids taken by opioid abusers were obtained freely from friends and family with legal prescriptions. These sobering findings underscore the importance of reducing opioid prescriptions on the front end and disposing of unused opioid prescriptions on the back end.
Just as importantly, the report discovered that individuals who are disconnected from their families and who are either never married or divorced are much more susceptible to opioid addiction, highlighting how important social connectedness is to fighting this epidemic.
These results complemented the work the Task Force was doing in that state. They discovered that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem. While there definitely are bad guys in this story—such as the dealers who take advantage of others by manufacturing and distributing opioid-synthetics—there are many more innocent people who were drawn into opioid addiction after a work or sports accident.
These people need our love and support. But there is more we can do to make sure innocent people aren’t swept up in this epidemic. As task force member and University of Utah professor Dr. Jennifer Plumb has told us, doctors have been overprescribing opioids for years because they have underestimated how addictive they are. Likewise, patients have come to believe that opioid prescriptions are the best way to deal with their pain, even when other pain-management methods may be better suited to their needs.
Thankfully, opioid prescriptions are declining as we spread awareness about their destructive potential. We also have partnered with federal, state, and local governments to help promote Utah Take Back Day, a biannual effort to collect unused prescription medications lying around in people’s homes. Just this past April, more than three dozen Utah law enforcement agencies removed more than 17,000 pounds of unused prescription drugs from Utah homes.
This is a fight we can win, and these are significant achievements. We know this because Utah already is seeing results: Our state was one of just 14 where opioid deaths actually fell last year.
But there is more we can do. We need to keep up the work and identify new ways to combat this epidemic. So please join our effort. You can help us solve this problem by sharing your experiences and ideas.
Only through our combined efforts Utah will beat the opioid epidemic.