Rise in opioid overdose deaths

This graphic from the Centers for Disease Control illustrates the three waves in which communities across the U.S. have been overwhelmed by the opioid epidemic since 1997.

There’s an amount of dark humor in any profession in which one sees harsh realities of life on a daily basis. Working at a newspaper is one such profession.

An editor gets to work and asks a reporter “What do we have on the jail reports today?” and generally the answer is a deadpan “meth.”

And our community does have a meth problem, no question. But that’s an illegal drug fight. Law enforcement agencies work to combat drug traffickers from bringing large quantities of the drug into our communities or find those creating their own homegrown versions, which are often even more dangerous.

But we also have a legal drug problem.

While we try and balance out the bad news with the good, (really we do) so you get a representative view of your community and what’s going on in it, there are some truths that are painfully obvious.

One of those truths is we need to consider what our legal drug problem is doing to our community. It’s the one that the police can’t fight. This drug problem is legally delivered, prescribed and purchased in our community and across the state each day.

We’ve had this problem for a while.

Some “pain clinics” have been accused of distributing pills with the same scrutiny that young clerks at California marijuana clinics (prior to recreational legalization) checked medical marijuana IDs. None at all.

Just to make sure we’re clear. Let’s get a definition of exactly what an opioid is.

According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, they are a class of drugs including heroin (which is, of course, illegal) but also including many drugs legally available like fentanyl, oxycodone under the brand name of OxyContin, hydrocodone under the brand name of Vicodin, codeine and morphine.

Primarily they’re prescribed for pain, but they’re also highly addictive and pose the danger of accidental overdose, which stops you from breathing.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, overdose deaths involving opioid prescriptions have been on the rise since 1999, with the exception of a slight drop in 2013, and have continued to rise since then.

The total economic burden of dealing with prescription opioid misuse in the U.S. amounts to $78.5 billion a year. That figure includes the costs of healthcare and lost productivity as well as addiction treatment and criminal justice involvement, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Because of that rise in opioid-related overdoses, and the fact there’s a drug that can quickly counter the effects of the drugs, many first responders were issued Naloxone spray.

In 2017, the quick acting spray was used infrequently. But that’s changed. Over and over again, first responders — including police, EMS and firefighters — have categorically said there’s a problem. In 2019, the spray has been deployed nearly 200 times. While that number may include multiple doses for one person, even if you cut it in half — it’s still a very large number of overdoses.

Something we feel must be mentioned, even though it’s shoehorning the information, is Georgia’s Amnesty Law. Since many overdoses occur with others around, Georgia has a law that grants a certain amount of legal protection for those who call to report an overdose and for those who overdosed.

This law protects those who, despite recent choices, are attempting to save a life. It saves them from prosecution for small amounts of drugs or alcohol. It also gives an amount of immunity for those on parole or probation who are attempting to get someone help.

Back to the main topic. Our drug problem, the legal one, costs money. And that’s not the cost of purchasing what was prescribed as a legal drug then sold illegally on the street. It’s the bill taxpayers are having to foot for dealing with an overwhelming problem.

It’s the cost of first responders dealing with overdose after overdose. It’s the cost of medical personnel in the ER reviving a patient.

Part of combating any legal problem is, well, is a foray into the legal system — a lawsuit.

Both Rome and Floyd County have joined lawsuits across the nation which accuse the manufacturers of these products of using deceptive practices to, essentially, create the problem.

The lawsuits claim manufacturers underreported the addictive qualities of opioids and overstated the benefits of the drugs in order to glean more profits. They also accuse those who distribute the drugs of not bothering to monitor the distribution of the drugs, which led to the drugs being sold on the street.

Both Rome and Floyd County have signaled they’ll stay the course and pursue their claims against the painkiller companies, which may take a while to play out to fruition. But if we can look at two lawsuits settled earlier this week, to the tune of $260 million for two Ohio counties, there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

While it may not be settled in court there’s one obvious conclusion — the flood of opioid-based painkillers has created a burden on our community.

Recommended for you