(BRANDON HANSEN/Chewelah Independent)
WIDE-REACHING ISSUE: Several community members discuss the impact of opioids at Chewelah City Hall…
With 240 million prescriptions for opioids given every year, a crisis has developed where more adult Americans are likely to die from a drug overdose than an automobile accident.
This is an issue not lost on the Stevens County and Chewelah local communities. Thanks to the efforts of Chewelah Mayor Dorothy Knauss and the Colville branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), an opioid panel was brought to Chewelah City Hall to discuss the issue.
The showing of a documentary video started off the event, informing the large crowd in attendance that opioid prescription drugs were overprescribed by the medical community as doctors were trying to help people with pain while underestimating the drugs’ addictive qualities.
The documentary pointed out that the drugs were being used for issues like pain from surgery, broken bones and cancer treatment while also being prescribed for issues like chronic pain – something opioids aren’t good at stopping.
Dr. Caleb Holtzer, who works for Providence Health, then talked about the steep rise in total opioid dosages from 2005 to 2010.
Holtzer said that the medical community realized there was a serious issue with opioids in 2010 and began cutting the number of prescriptions. Because of this, prescription drug overdose deaths have dropped but there has been a rise in heroin and fentanyl overdoses.
“We havent seen a big spike in fentanyl and not as much in heroin but it is coming and Washington could be headed towards national trends,” Holtzer said.
Holtzer said the Stevens County is one of the most highly prescribed counties in the state which can be slightly troubling. There was a Tri-County Opioid Treatment Network established with help from Rural Resources, New Alliance Services and NE Washington Health to help get people into treatment who needed it. Currently the program has 145 people receiving treatment and they have additional resources to help even more people.
Stevens County Sheriff Brad Manke said that when he first took over the sheriff’s office’s drug unit in 2008, the county was in the height of the meth use epidemic. He stated it appeared a lot of the recreational drug users in that epidemic switched over to prescription drugs with oxycodone turning into a commonly trafficked drug.
With the medical field shifting prescription practices, Manke said that pills aren’t as commonly traffiked as say heroin, or an opioid pain-killer substitute for addicts like suboxone.
He also added drugs drive about 85 percent of the county’s crime rate.
Chewelah Chief of Police Mark Burrows recalled a night he had to respond to a drug overdose from heroin and witnessed the person lying on the ground gurgling.
“NARCAN saved his life and hopefully he’s found a way to clean up his life while being in prison,” Burrows said.
Burrows said the drug problem has been tough because there is limited jail space and offenders just keep re-offending.
“There are a lot of families that have been affected by this epidemic in one way or another,” Burrows said.
Stevens County Judge Gina Tveit said she noticed a rise in the prescription drug problem in 2008. Two women were buying and selling pain pills, and when the women appeared in court, Tveit said they looked like somebody’s grandmas. She pointed out that since the epidemic has hit, it is a quick downward spiral, more than other drugs and that people commit crime while under the influence or to supplement their addiction.
Tveit praised the new Tri-County Opioid Treatment Network and said that it is a wonderful tool to try and combat the issue.
Lynn Guhlkee, the Medical Health Clinic Director for New Alliance Counseling, said that the opioid epidemic has a lot of fingers in the community. She recounted a time when New Alliance Counseling had to respond to an issue at a school where two students had snorted oxycodone.
“We didn’t know how to respond to that and why would someone do something like that?” Guhlkee said. “We weren’t able to comprehend the problem, where kids could just go to the medical cabinet and have this problem. There is not enough education about it.”
Judy Hutton from Tri-County Health pointed to the big-time rise in hepitis C from opioid use because of needles. Tri-County Health now offers a syringe disposal service and provides new syringes to help combat these diseases. Hutton said the department handles 5,200 syringes last year. They also provide fentanyl testing strips to make sure their drugs don’t have this dangerous drug in it. They have also training several law enforcement agencies, including the Chewelah Police Department, about the use of NARCAN to help save lives of people who overdosed. They also provide NARCAN to family members of addicts who are afraid that they will overdose.
A community member who was an addict but has been sober for about a year credits community rehab programs and suboxone for helping them clean up their life.
“Thanks to this, I’ve been able to get a job, start to go to school and start to span out and build my recovery network,” the community member said. “I was raised right by my might, but I used drugs recreationally and opioids were like wildfire I couldn’t control.”
Dr. Holtzer pointed out that recovery can be difficult, and programs that require addicts to be completely clean of drugs are about eight percent successful, whereas medically assisted rehab programs with drugs like suboxone are 40 percent successful. He says in these programs, people still relapse but if they keep coming back to the program their degree of success begins to
There was a question from the audience asking if there was a connection between the legalization of marijuana had any affect as perhaps a gateway drug. Manke pointed out pot has always been readily available in Stevens County and he doesn’t see more kids using it since legalization. He said that while pills have been used among high school students, he doesn’t see many teen meth or heroin addicts in the county.
Other topics included the cost of rehabilitation which can go up to 45 days for some insurance companies and then to switch week-to-week. Some rehab programs don’t have medical aids like suboxone and aren’t as successful.
Holtzer added that the way doctors prescribe pain pills has changed, but also said there aren’t a lot of options when it comes to pain relief.
“If we had more pain relief tools I don’t think opioids would have been prescribed as much,” Holtzer said.