The County Voice

Opioid Epidemic: Counties on the Front Line

This was originally printed as an opinion piece in the Bakersfield Californian.

The recent confirmation that legally prescribed opioids caused the death of the iconic musician Prince has become an all too familiar tale for families across the nation. From the penthouse to the pavement, from the superstar to our children, this addiction can be deadly. Every 19 minutes we lose an American to opioid overdose. We must respond aggressively to this epidemic.

Americans comprise just 5 percent of the world’s population but consume 80 percent of the world’s prescription medication, much of it in the form of opioids for pain relief. Research shows that legal users can quickly move from ingesting medically safe levels for pain control to full-blown addiction. And once addicted, users often switch from legally prescribed medication to cheaper and more dangerous illegal street drugs.

Recently, in Northern California, an illegal street-version of the powerful opioid Fentanyl was sold as the less-powerful drug Norco. This caused dozens of overdoses in California, including at least 13 deaths in the Sacramento region. In Los Angeles County, 62 people died from Fentanyl-related overdoses in 2014 — up 50 percent from two years prior.

Drug overdose was the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., with 47,055 lethal drug overdoses in 2014 according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Several interactive maps and other tools illustrate that opioid addiction, including heroin use, has moved out of the urban cores and into suburbs and rural areas.

Aside from the tragic deaths, disrupted families, lost jobs and wasted potential, the cost of medical care for overdose cases and the expense of prosecution and incarceration can be staggering. Prevention and treatment must play a larger role in addressing this epidemic.

That is why I am privileged to be part of National City-County Task Force on the Opioid Epidemic, formed by the National Association of Counties and the National League of Cities. The task force is still in its infancy, but I believe it will be a catalyst for implementing concrete solutions to effectively treat and stop the spread of opioid dependency.

The task force can help focus more resources on intervention, treatment and helping people return to society. This is far less costly than incarceration, but currently there are not nearly enough treatment slots available. The task force can also help foster government collaboration, a key component in any effort to stem the tide of addiction. State and federal resources need to coordinate with local government programs already on the ground. And the task force can foster closer relationships between health and human services practitioners, law enforcement and the justice system.

It’s a tall order, and we will measure our progress in inches at first, not in miles. But we have to start now, and we have to have the structure in place to continue this effort for the long haul. The National City-County Task Force on the Opioid Epidemic is focused on developing that structure and a healthy future for all Americans.

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