FRANKFORT – In many ways, it is impossible to calculate the true cost of the drug epidemic that has grown exponentially since the turn of the century.
We can add up a lot of things, but there is no adequate dollar figure to quantify the suffering of families who have lost loved ones to addiction or prison. We will never know what, exactly, society sacrifices when children grow up without their parents, when communities have to re-allocate precious resources needed elsewhere and when businesses falter because of jobs they can’t fill. All we know for sure is that addiction keeps our nation from reaching its full potential.
Over the years, the General Assembly has worked to turn back this tide of illegal drug use, passing smart-on-crime laws designed to more severely punish suppliers while helping addicts get the treatment they need to escape the deadly cycle once and for all.
Often, other states have looked to Kentucky for solutions. We were first in the nation, for example, to put our prescription drug-monitoring program online, making it much easier to find and eliminate abuse. We effectively stopped shady internet pharmacies and “pill mill” pain clinics from operating in the commonwealth, and we made it much more difficult to manufacture and sell synthetic drugs.
More recently, we have focused on reversing the steep rise of heroin and other opioid drugs that are particularly flooding our larger cities and rural communities in Eastern Kentucky.
To get a better understanding of what is now being done in the field, the General Assembly’s Health and Welfare and Family Services Committee dedicated most of a day late last month to hearing from those who are on the front lines.
It can be easy to get lost in a sea of statistics, but a few discussed at the meeting do help provide perspective. Consider the 1,404 overdose deaths that occurred in 2016, which far out-paced the 837 who died last year in traffic accidents. In 2015, meanwhile, there were more than 1,300 newborns hospitalized because of withdrawal symptoms, more than double the number from just three years earlier and about 30 times greater than the 46 babies treated in 2001.
At the height of the prescription-drug epidemic, in 2012, only three states had more painkillers prescribed per 100 people than Kentucky. In fact, our rate – well above one prescription per person – was more than double what was found in bottom-tiered states.
One point driven home during the committee meeting was that the risk factors for addiction begin at a young age. The more adverse childhood experiences (ACE) a child has, the more likely he or she will grow up to face a host of problems that undercut their adult lives. These ACEs include such actions as abuse, domestic violence and the loss of a parent to prison or divorce.
Nearly half of the children in the United States have suffered from at least one ACE, and those with three or more have a life expectancy that is up to 20 years lower than the national average. Unfortunately, the rate of ACEs in Kentucky exceeds what is found in many other states.
These are long-term issues that will not be solved overnight, but the good news is that progress is being made, thanks in part to much greater public awareness and understanding and more access to treatment.
Coordinated efforts among local and state leaders are also making a difference in places like Kenton County, which has been at the epicenter of the heroin epidemic. Last year, this work was a key reason why this county saw a distinct drop in overdose deaths.
Just a few days after the legislative committee’s day-long meeting, we learned that Kentucky was one of only three states the federal government has chosen to receive a $10 million grant to help fight drug addiction. This money will go a long way toward getting many the help they need.
The General Assembly will undoubtedly strive to do even more when it convenes at the Capitol in January. We have long understood that addiction is an ever-changing battlefield, but I believe we are better-suited than ever before at overcoming the challenges ahead.
If you have any thoughts or suggestions on what more we can do, I would like to know. You can reach me by writing to Room 432F, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort KY 40601; or you can email me at [email protected].
To leave a message for me or for any legislator, call toll-free at 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.
I hope to hear from you soon.