OPINION: A community approach to end the drug epidemic – Anchorage Daily News

Venus Woods, Director of HIV prevention and education at the Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association (Four A’s), prepares fentanyl test strips for an injection drug user at the Four A’s needle exchange site on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021 in Anchorage. Staff at Four A’s say there is growing worry over the presence of Fentanyl mixed into counterfeit pills, heroin, and even methamphetamine. (Loren Holmes / ADN archive 2021)
More than 100,000 Americans have died from drug overdoses in the past year. That is a 30% increase from the previous year; overdoses have doubled every decade for last 30 years. And now, per the CDC, the increase in opioid drug overdoses — more than 60,000 just last year — is being driven by the powerful synthetic drug fentanyl.
Fentanyl is 50-100 times more powerful than morphine. Per the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, fentanyl is being added to heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines and sprayed on marijuana. It is included in counterfeit versions of pills such as Percocet, Xanax and even Adderall.
Two milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal.
One pill can kill. In fact, fentanyl is the leading cause of deaths for Americans ages 18-45 since 2020: more than COVID-19, car accidents or suicide.
Fentanyl is a synthetic drug, can be manufactured anywhere and is easily obtained. It has huge profit margins compared to the large-scale agricultural production required to grow marijuana, coca and opium poppies. Based on its unique combination of low cost and lethal effect, fentanyl is the most common drug involved in overdoses in all 50 states.
Alaska has not escaped this troubling trend of drug overdoses. Per the Department of Alaska Health and Social Services, we have lost 180 Alaskans to drug overdoses in the first three quarters of 2021. This is a shocking 23% increase from 2020 to 2021, with a 37% increase over the same period for Alaskans ages 18-24. These numbers may increase as more data is reported.
Nationally, per JAMA Pediatrics, we have lost 22,000 young people ages 10-24 between 2015 to 2019 due to unintentional drug poisoning when no harm was intended due to drug use or misuse. The grief and loss must be unbearable for parents that have lost a child. Every one of these deaths were preventable. Younger and younger children are getting into drugs, and drugs are killing them.
The drug epidemic is raging, as annual overdose deaths have spiked by 50%, creating a national emergency. These deaths are now costing the U.S. economy a trillion dollars per year. This staggering amount is due to lost productivity caused by early deaths, health care costs and criminal justice costs.
To confront this drug epidemic, I and others, including author Sam Quinones, advocate for a community approach that creates vital local partnerships. We need a commitment from the community — not just a small cross section of our neighbors, but from the broader community. We need compassionate, concerned involvement and support from a diversity of community members.
The first part of this community approach is having harm reduction strategies available to all community members. These harm reduction strategies include providing Narcan kits, an antidote to opioid overdose, Medication Disposal Bags to safely dispose of opioids, and drug test strips to test for the presence of fentanyl to avoid its deadly effects. These are proven ways to save lives. Project Hope provides all of these items free of charge, including training in their safe use: you can contact Project Hope by emailing ProjectHOPE@alaska.gov or by calling 907-334-2675.
A second important area we need to redouble our efforts in is upstream primary prevention programs for youth. We need to pull those suffering out of the river of addiction, but it is also much easier to move upstream and prevent these tragic deaths before abuse even begins. These prevention measures can have a real impact in every Alaska community that chooses to invest in their youth. I suggest these programs need to be twofold.
First, our youth need to hear about the science of addiction and how drugs impact their brain with dire consequences. These lessons need to have the most honest, accurate and current information. This education can not be shortsighted or limited to a message that drugs are simply bad. Instead, these lessons have to go further with engaging discussions, explaining the neuroscience behind addiction and their brains.
Second, we have to provide opportunities for our youth to connect and build positive, protective relationships with their own caring community members. Many youth are suffering from social isolation partly due to COVID-19, school closures, social distancing and not having vital, meaningful relationships. This social isolation is taking a deadly toll on our youth.
We also need to hear from our youth directly and listen to their ideas for what engaging opportunities and programs would be useful and meaningful to them. They need to know we care for them and value their voices, thoughts and desires. These important health lessons and programs, informed by insights directly from our youth, will keep our young people safe, healthy and thriving.
We can all agree youth are worth our investment. We must band together to end this drug epidemic to ensure their successful and productive futures. Thank you for joining the good fight for all Alaskans, and especially our youth.
Michael P. Carson serves as Vice President and Recovery Specialist at MyHouse of Mat-Su. He chairs the Mat-Su Opioid Task Force.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.
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