In the face of a death toll that’s increased by 30 percent in the last decade, federal law enforcement officials are making the arrest and prosecution of drug traffickers moving heroin and opioids a top priority.
In addition to those and other efforts, President Barack Obama announced Sept. 19-23 is the inaugural “Opioid and Heroin Awareness Week” to discuss what national and local leaders have dubbed a huge crisis affecting public safety and public health.
“In 2014 alone, there were 27,000 deaths from [opioid] overdoses nationally,” Assistant District Attorney Steve Butler said at a Sept. 19 press conference in Mobile. “That’s an average of about 78 per day, but more recent statistics suggest that number could have already jumped closer to 100 deaths per day.”
An opioid is any “opium-like” substance that binds to the opioid receptors in the human brain, which includes heroin but also stronger prescription painkillers such as Vicodin, hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine and others.
After years of overprescribing and misuse, overdoses caused by painkillers are now killing more Americans than automobile accidents every year, according to Butler.
As Lagniappe reported earlier this month, Alabama is not immune to the effects of the crisis. In fact, the statistics suggest heroin could overtake methamphetamine as the most pressing drug threat in some areas of the Yellowhammer State by 2017.
At Monday’s press conference, Mobile Police Chief James Barber localized the grim statistics by revealing the MPD responded to at least two deaths believed to be caused by opioid overdose in the past 30 days — both men in their 20s and both found deceased by their mothers.
“We’ll be participating in events throughout the week, but you’ll see us roll this particular campaign into public and private schools in the coming months,” Barber said. “We have to inform these kids, who are literally ignorant of the dangers they are facing in some cases.”
In addition to promoting awareness and continuing to vigorously prosecute drug offenders, Butler said the U.S. Department of Justice will be providing resources and grants to various public health agencies working to address the problem through treatment, prevention, education and in some cases all three.
The administration is also increasing federal DOJ funding for prescription drug monitoring programs across the country and passing grants to support state-level law enforcement investigations of drug manufacturing and drug distribution networks. The Department of Health and Human Services has already split $53 million between 44 states and the District of Columbia in hopes of improving access to opioid detoxification, reducing related deaths and strengthening existing drug misuse and prevention programs.
Earlier this month, Gov. Robert Bentley announced a plan to participate in a “learning lab” through the National Governors Association that will give specialists in Alabama — a state that writes 143 opioid prescriptions for every 100 residents — a chance to learn from and build on existing efforts in other states.
Barber told reporters it’s common for otherwise law abiding citizens to start using legally prescribed pain medicine before progressing to harder drugs like heroin. Quoting national statistics, he said “95 percent of those who use heroin intravenously will die within eight years.”
“In the ‘70s, when someone was addicted to heroin, they started with it. It was usually one of the first drugs they’d used,” DEA Agent Don Desalvo said. “Today, 80 percent of heroin users started with prescription opioid drugs. It’s a slippery slope.”
Desalvo joined others in encouraging parents to speak to their kids about the dangers of opioid use, to watch for signs of abuse and, most importantly, to keep any medicines in their homes secure and discard unused prescriptions.
“Honestly, you should treat them like you would a gun. A lot of kids get their hands on opioids for the first time from medicine cabinets at home,” Desalvo added. “Kids believe that these are pharmaceutical drugs so they must be safe. They’re not.”
To make matters worse, the lethality of heroin has jumped tremendously because cheaper drugs like fentanyl are increasingly used to cut the drug and increase its volume. Said to be close to 100 times more potent than heroin itself, fentanyl is manufactured legitimately by pharmaceutical companies for treating pain in “late-stage” cancer patients.
However, Desalvo said synthetic versions are also made overseas in places such as China before being shipped to places like Mexico and smuggled into the U.S. through traditional drug trafficking networks. He said even the DEA can’t distinguish fentanyl from heroin until it’s been lab tested.
“Fentanyl … it’s death,” he said. “One speck can actually kill someone, and of the individuals that are overdosing, many of them are overdosing because they believe they’re putting heroin in their body when they aren’t.”
Though recent federal efforts make it clear prescription drugs are driving the opioid and heroin crisis, policing their use can be difficult for authorities. Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran said opioids have been “entrenched in the community” throughout his 30-year career, but he said enforcing the laws against them can be one of the more difficult investigations.
“A lot of times they’re dispersed through legal pharmacies, medical professionals or by people who are good at what we call, ‘doctor shopping,’” Cochran said. “We believe that the best approach is through regulatory enforcement, but you see why we’ve been met with such tremendous resistance from state legislators and in Congress when you look at the millions if not tens of millions of dollars that have been spent lobbying against us.”
Cochran isn’t exaggerating. Recently the Associated Press partnered with the Center for Public Integrity to comb through lobbying filings that showed pro-pharmaceutical lobbyists spent $740 million lobbying in Washington and in all 50 state legislatures from 2006 to 2015.
Another $140 million was pumped into political campaigns, including more than $75 million that went to candidates and political action committees supporting candidates running for federal office, according to AP.
Policymakers will soon get another chance to revisit the opioid issue, as part of President Obama’s plan to address the growing crisis asks Congress to approve more than $1 billion in related funding.