FRANKFORT – One of the most difficult challenges fighting the war against illegal drug use is that when we begin making progress on one front, the battlefield invariably changes.
We’ve seen that happen time and again over the past two decades. Those “fronts” have ranged from meth and synthetic drugs to heroin and abuse of prescription medicine.
According to the annual report the state’s Office of Drug Control Policy released last week, another name, perhaps unfamiliar to many, is overtaking them all: fentanyl.
This synthetic cousin to heroin is often prescribed to help patients in severe pain near the end of their lives. Drug cartels are often mixing it with heroin and other drugs, however, because it is as much as 50 times more potent. Unfortunately, many users are unaware that the drugs they’re taking are laced with it.
According to last week’s annual report, there were 1,567 overdose deaths last year, a record that is 11.5 percent higher than 2016’s total and which is almost exactly double the number of highway fatalities in the commonwealth last year.
Fentanyl was a factor in a little more than 700 of the overdose deaths, which is about two-thirds higher than it was just two years ago. That rise also obscures the fact that we seem to be making headway in reducing overdoses involving heroin, which was a factor in 22 percent of the cases last year. That’s down from 34 percent of the cases in 2016.
The report showed that all age groups are affected by drug-related deaths, but the greatest number occurred in victims between the ages of 35 and 44. The numbers of those who died in their mid-20s to early 30s, meanwhile, was almost identical to those in their mid-40s to early 50s.
Kentucky has taken several major steps over the years to bring down all of the deadly numbers associated with illegal drug use.
A little more than a decade ago, for example, we were the first state in the nation to put prescription-drug monitoring online, enabling prescribers and law enforcement alike to better track abuse more quickly.
We then boosted that tool in 2012 to counter a wave of prescription-drug abuse, a move that the University of Kentucky said cut doctor-shopping in half and all but stopped the fly-by-night pain clinics known as “pill mills.”
In 2015, we enacted a multi-pronged law focused on heroin, a measure that significantly stiffened penalties for traffickers and ultimately provided more than $40 million to fund an array of initiatives.
That included helping expand substance-abuse programs in our correctional systems and community health centers, and it eased the transition home for infants born addicted. Social workers also received more money to broaden successful alternative-sentencing programs for qualified defendants in court.
That same 2015 law made it easier for first responders and others to access Naloxone, which can reverse heroin overdoses, and it also gave local communities authority to create needle-exchange programs to reduce the prevalence of dirty needles and to slow the rate of such blood-borne diseases as HIV and Hepatitis C. Most other states offer similar exchanges.
In 2016, the General Assembly passed a law cracking down on those involved in a new round of synthetic drugs, and in 2017, new limits were placed on the length of time doctors can prescribe strong pain medicine in all but the most serious cases.
The Office of Drug Control Policy report reminds us that help is available if you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse. The toll-free number to speak with a live specialist about treatment options and other helpful measures is 1-833-859-4357.
A new website – www.findhelpnowky.org – is available as well. It gives healthcare providers, court officials, addicts and their loved ones information about the availability of space in treatment programs.
I encourage you to use these resources if you or someone you know would benefit. If we are to truly turn the tide against illegal drug use, to win the battle once and for all, it will take all of us working together to help reduce addiction rates. For Kentucky, this is arguably the biggest challenge we face during the first half of this century.
If you have any thoughts on this matter, please let me know. My email is Rick.Rand@lrc.ky.gov, and to leave a message with me by phone, you can call 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.