No one gets a free pass — not our doctors or pharmacists, not our schools or hospitals, not our teens, coaches, government, religious or business leaders, not even our media outlets. Everyone must own the problem of opioid addiction if we are going to turn the crisis around.
Every year now, more people die in Minnesota from opioid-related overdoses than in car accidents: OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet have become just as deadly as heroin. Last year there were 1,300 such deaths in New York City, 700 in Philadelphia. In 2016 we had 153 deaths just in Hennepin County, up 39 percent from 2015.
In Hennepin County, and across the nation as a whole, the rate of opioid-related deaths is roughly three times the murder rate. If we had 153 homicides in one year, that would get some attention.
Every overdose death is both tragic and preventable. So when will this be declared a public health crisis? When will we tell big pharma to stop the incentives to doctors, and force them to publicly acknowledge the extremely addictive nature of opioid-based painkillers?
When will we ask our doctors to stop accepting the incentives and prescribe alternatives?
When will we require mandatory reporting from our pharmacists so we can investigate these deaths as they should be investigated?
According to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey, an estimated 126 million Americans reported suffering from some form of severe or chronic pain, and an estimated 2.1 million Americans are addicted to prescription painkillers. In 2017, the number of pain medication prescriptions in any given state ranges from 50 to 146 percent of that state’s population.
I’m sure our doctors, pharmacists and even the drug manufacturers began with good intentions, believing these drugs could be prescribed safely. But now we know they can’t be, and should not be used for anything but the most severe pain or end-of-life care.
The terrible cycle of misuse and abuse begins as people become physically and psychologically dependent on painkillers. So many of the deaths result from an addicted teen or young adult trying heroin for the first time. People have no idea that the heroin they get as a desperate substitute for their painkiller — obtained from a friend, or bought in their school, online or from a street dealer — may be laced with fentanyl or carfentanil. They have no idea what they are getting, and fentanyl and carfentanil make heroin thousands of times more addictive and deadly.
I’m asking for your immediate help:
1. Empty your medicine cabinet and properly dispose of unused medicines using drug deactivation pouches or secured take-back boxes so the medicines can’t be misused or re-marketed.
2. Ask your doctor to prescribe viable alternatives to opioids for your family members.
3. There are a great many drug-awareness videos available on the internet. Watch them and then talk to your teens. I guarantee they have at least one classmate who is abusing prescription drugs and could die of an overdose.
4.Talk to your state or federal elected officials about mandating a prescription monitoring program, and prohibiting financial incentives from pharmaceutical companies to prescribers.
5. Help organize, participate in or attend a #NOverdose awareness meeting at your school or city hall or with your local civic group (Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, etc.).
6. Confirm that your police department’s officers are trained and equipped with naloxone, an opioid inhibitor that is proven to save lives.
7. Use and adopt the #NOverdose hashtag in your e-mails, and social media.
In Hennepin County we have seen a correlation between the shocking 25 percent rise in child abuse and neglect cases in 2016 and opioid-addicted parents. No more free passes for anyone. It’s very simple, and it has become a matter of life and death.
When it comes to opioids, don’t take them, don’t prescribe them, don’t fill them, get rid of them — and people won’t die.
Richard W. Stanek is Hennepin County sheriff.