Area experts gathered in Portland for a panel discussion on the local opioid crisis Thursday.
Members of the community were told about the problems frontline workers face and solutions and resources available to the public.
The panel was comprised of 10 people, many of whom were involved in local government and local law enforcement from Robertson and Sumner Counties.
Portland Mayor Mike Callis moderated the evening’s discussion.
“There are very few families that have not been touched by this, if it’s not overdose death it’s a child that you’ve seen absolutely just be torn from you because their entire personality has been stolen by the love of the drug,” State Representative and event panelist William Lamberth said.
“In 2019 in the state of Tennessee, we had 2,089 confirmed overdose deaths, 2,089 people just gone from us because of this,” he said. “In 2020 that number was up to 3,091 – that’s 1,000 more deaths in one year.”
“Now when you have that kind of increase in one year, that’s why we’re all here. We’ve all got to focus on this. No one person has all the answers to it, but surely, collectively, we can get that number headed back down the other direction and hopefully get it back down to zero.”
A growing crisis
Sumner County Sheriff’s Office Major and panelist Tim Bailey illustrated the county’s growing crisis by showing the increase in case files the Sheriff’s Office handles – a few pages encompassed all of 2015’s overdose reports.
A folder contains 2021’s overdose reports from January-June.
“In 2015, (Sumner County) had 9 total overdoses, one involving fentanyl. In 2019, we had 27 (overdoses), 21 involving fentanyl. In 2020, we had 35 (overdoses), 33 with fentanyl, and in 2021, so far year-to-date, we’ve had 17 (overdoses), 16 involving fentanyl,” he said.
Since 2018, Sumner County Sheriff’s Office officers have deployed Narcan, a remedy for opioid overdose, in the field more than 100 times, Bailey added.
“We have successfully prosecuted less than a dozen cases where we can find the dealer and charge him with second degree (murder),” he said. “We’re trying hard to identify these dealers that are dealing this poison, but it’s not easy.”
Other panel officials agreed.
“We’re doing everything we can, as you can see, to attack the problem from a lot of different areas,” District Attorney General Ray Whitley said.
The state’s rate of opioid prescriptions, available funding, manpower and other issues frontline workers face all contribute to the opioid crisis.
The Tennessee Department of Health Drug Overdose Dashboard provides several state-wide statistics on overdose deaths, further illustrating the extent of the problem.
In 2018, Tennessee providers wrote 81.8 opioid prescriptions for every 100 people, ranking as the third-highest prescribing rate in the country and more than the average U.S. rate of 51.4 prescriptions, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
In 2019, there were 47 drug overdose deaths in Sumner County and 506 nonfatal overdose outpatient visits.
Many in law enforcement say Fentanyl is the biggest contributing factor to the opioid crisis.
Between 2013 and 2017 alone, deaths from fentanyl in Tennessee increased by 800%, according to the tndagc.org public education campaign – Fentanyl: The Deadliest High.
“Fentanyl is about everything we see now and touch,” 18th Judicial District Drug Task Force Director Kelly Murphy said.
“They say one kilo of fentanyl has the possibility to kill up to 100,000 people, just in Sumner County alone. Just in our agency, off two cases last year, we took in a quarter kilo total of fentanyl, so you’re looking at the possibility of 125,000 people’s lives being affected if that hits the streets,” he said.
“I don’t think we’ve ever worked anything as powerful as this that affects as many people.”
Thinking about solutions
Interagency cooperation makes up one aspect in the fight against the opioid crisis.
“Of all the crimes that we investigate, with the exception of child sex abuse, I would say that overdoses and overdose deaths probably result in more interagency cooperation than any other crime that we work,” Portland Chief of Police Jason Williams said.
But cooperation from the public is important, too.
“(It’s) probably just as important, if not more important, than cooperation amongst ourselves because these people who are dying out here in the community, nine times out of ten, we show up and they’re strangers to us,” Williams said.
Without the help of family members, friends and neighbors, officers don’t get very far, he noted.
“If we have an overdose where someone doesn’t die, a lot of times we can’t get any cooperation from that person because they’re just not ready to turn the corner yet and that’s frustrating,” he said.
“That’s another area where family could possibly help because family support and having a support system in place is the most important thing for somebody to be able to turn the corner and lay down that drug.”
But officials don’t always know where to look, making reporting an important piece of the puzzle.
Policy change takes time
Lobbying for legislation and voting elected officials into office that support the cause can spur major, local impact.
And the state government is examining the issue.
House Bill 1132, or the opioid abatement bill, was adopted and passed on May 4.
The bill, sponsored by Senator Ferrell Haile, enacts the Tennessee Opioid Abatement Act fund, authorizing the attorney general and reporter to settle claims against opioid manufacturers.
Haile was on hand Thursday to serve on the panel and talk about the bill, which outlines how funds received from settlement agreements will be allocated.
For example, proceeds received from a statewide opioid settlement agreement with McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health, Inc., AmerisourceBergen Corporation or Johnson & Johnson, or affiliates or subsidiaries of these entities, that go into the fund will be disbursed by the council accordingly: 35% to counties that join the settlement and 65% for statewide, regional or local opioid abatement and remediation purposes.
For more information on the bill, abatement fund and council, visit trackbill.com.
Resources for addicts and families
Many local, state and federal resources are available to those struggling with addiction, navigating recovery and facing other challenges in sobriety.
Tennessee REDLINE is a 24/7/365, toll-free information and referral line coordinated by TAADAS and funded by the Tennessee Department of Mental Health Substance Abuse Services.
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