Oregon faces prescription opioid, heroin epidemic

Oregon's U.S. Attorney, Bill Williams, said "Taking Stock" was organized to address the "epidemic" that faces Oregon

A kit with naloxone, also known by its brand name Narcan, is displayed at the South Jersey AIDS Alliance in Atlantic City, N.J. on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. An overdose of opiates essentially makes the body forget to breathe. Naloxone works by blocking the brain receptors that opiates latch onto and helping the body "remember" to take in air. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
A kit with naloxone, also known by its brand name Narcan, is displayed at the South Jersey AIDS Alliance in Atlantic City, N.J. on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. An overdose of opiates essentially makes the body forget to breathe. Naloxone works by blocking the brain receptors that opiates latch onto and helping the body "remember" to take in air. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — An average of 3 Oregonians die each week from prescription opioid overdose, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

The abuse of prescription opiates and heroin is described as a “major crisis,” by DEA Special Agent in Charge in Oregon Cam B. Strahm.

Strahm was one of approximately 50 people who attended “Taking Stock,” a conference that examined Oregon’s prescription opioid and heroin epidemic. The round-table discussion included local, state and federal law enforcement members and public health agencies.

“What we know and what we continue to learn is that enforcement alone, treatment alone and prevention alone is not the solution,” Strahm said. “You have to put all three together.”

According to OHA, more drug overdose deaths involve prescription opioids than any other type of drug, including alcohol, methamphetamine, and cocaine. Opioids are most often used as painkillers prescribed by doctors. The use of illegal opiates, such as heroin, and the abuse of legally available pain relievers, like oxycodone, can have negative health effects on a person’s body and the greater community.

“The opioid addicted population has changed dramatically from 10-15 years ago,” Strahm said. “There is no one demographic. There’s no stereotypical opioid addict.”

The 2013 and 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that 50% of people who abused prescription painkillers got them from a friend or relative for free. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that 22% got prescription painkillers from a doctor.

“As people use opioids repeatedly, their tolerance increases and they may not be able to maintain the source for the drugs. This can cause them to turn to the black market for these drugs and even switch from prescription drugs to cheaper and more risky substitutes like heroin,” SAMSHA writes on its website.

“The agents in the field see it on a daily basis,” Strahm said. “The property crimes in the neighborhoods, the property crimes in the city, the property crimes throughout the state, are increasing significantly when heroin and opioid abuse goes up.”

Oregon’s U.S. Attorney, Bill Williams, said “Taking Stock” was organized to address the “epidemic” that faces that nation and Oregon.

“We can certainly look to our priorities in terms of enforcement, and pursue individuals who are involved in [drug] trafficking [but] you can’t prosecute your way out of the problem,” Williams said.

He said prevention strategies and treatment options are critical.

“We need to make sure that treatment is available and that people who want to get help can seek that help,” Williams said.

For decades, police would fight the heroin and opiate addition on the street — in “dark alleyways” — as Williams described it, but the problem isn’t there anymore.

“It’s coming from your medicine cabinet,” he said. “It’s coming from over prescription.”

Oregon has one of the highest rates of prescription opioid misuse in the nation, according to OHA. The agency now encourages “responsible prescribing” after finding in 2013 nearly 1 in 4 Oregonians received a prescription for opioid medications. OHA has a task force to develop statewide opioid prescribing guidelines. In June, the group approved the adoption of the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain.

The FBI and DEA unveiled a documentary called “Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict.” The video is aimed at youth and highlights the “never-ending pursuit of the original or ultimate high” and the consequences that exist with that chase.

According to the White House, each year, more Americans die from drug overdoses than in traffic accidents, and more than 3 out of 5 of these deaths involve an opioid. The President had called on this week to be “Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week” where “we pause to remember all those we have lost to opioid use disorder, we stand with the courageous individuals in recovery, and we recognize the importance of raising awareness of this epidemic.”

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