City leaders, police departments, firefighter, congressmen and county leaders congregated on Friday morning to discuss one of the biggest issues facing Pierce County — the opioid epidemic.
The Opioid Summit was put together by Pierce County Councilmember Derek Young, who has taken a personal interest in fighting opioid and heroin addictions in his county and on the Key Peninsula.
The crowd included Gig Harbor City Council members and members of the Peninsula school board. They sat with leaders from Tacoma, Puyallup, University Place and more as they discussed new initiatives in fighting the epidemic that has taken resources and lives from local communities.
“It’s time to treat this as a public health issue instead of a criminal issue,” Young said to the crowd at the top of the event.
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Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist spoke during the summit and told the crowd that he has given the green light to a lawsuit from the county against pharmaceutical companies in Federal Court to “hold them accountable.” He said he is seeking companies to give payback to local police and county offices for the resources, time and money spent dealing with those addicted to prescription drugs given away by doctors.
“I’ve been a prosecutor for 20-plus years,” Lindquist said. “Never have I needed to go to council to greenlight a lawsuit until now. The big pharmaceutical companies are not short of resources. We expect a big fight and I look forward to a big fight, but in the end, the law is on our side and the facts are on our side.”
According to statistics presented at the summit, from 1999 to 2015, admissions to treatment centers in Pierce County for heroin and opioid addictions went up 193 percent. There is a steady number of students in high schools finding themselves using opioid-based drugs and a large portion of homeless residents are addicted to some form of opioids.
For the past year Young and a group of community leaders worked together as a task force to research and come up with some ideas on how the community can help ease the issue and lower the number of heroin and opioid users and crimes in the county.
Some of those ideas included:
- Preventing inappropriate opioid prescribing;
- Increasing access to medical-assisted therapy;
- Increase access to Naloxone and linking patients to treatment;
- Enhancing current educational awareness and outreach campaigns to parents and affected community members regarding substance abuse;
- Requesting that the Pierce County Medical Examiner list with specificity the drugs that cause opioid-related deaths to aid investigations;
- Better continuous care between jail release and outside systems;
- Expanding clean syringe exchanges;
- Increasing the number of methadone clinics, public and private;
- Develop an array of affordable housing options;
- Add substance use function to 211 mental health line; and
- Bring updated drug awareness programs to public schools.
Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor, who spoke on behalf of his police force, said he supports Young and other local politicians’ new approach to the opioid crisis. He said he believes treatment and rehabilitation is two-thirds of the solution to fighting opioid and heroin in the streets.
WHAT LOCAL LEADERS ARE DOING
Gig Harbor Councilwoman Jeni Woock said she wanted to attend the summit to learn more about the epidemic and see how the city of Gig Harbor could assist local police officers and sheriff deputies execute this new approach to addiction and drug crimes.
“We haven’t discussed any initiatives in the council yet,” Woock said. “My goal this week is to get in touch with the school board and see what they need from the council, and do the same with the police department and fire department. The stigma is what is huge in every community, and we need to make sure everyone knows this is a health crisis and not a will crisis.”
During the summit, Calab Banta-Green, a researcher from the University of Washington, presented statistics and facts about what he calls opioid use disorder. One of the main themes was the use of opioids at an early age, leading to long-lasting, crippling addiction.
“We increasingly reach for opioids to deal with pain,” Banta-Green said. “The No. 1 question I’m asked is how to go from pills to heroin. You have to have access, and adolescence is a peek of misuse.”
Banta-Green’s research showed a survey of local 10th-grade students who were asked about using heroin. While only three percent admitted to using the illegal substance without ever having taken any opioid-based prescriptions, 75 percent of those who admitted to trying heroin had taken an opioid-based prescription in the past.
Peninsula School District Board of Directors President Marcia Harris said she was hopeful when she saw that there was not a steady rise of students using heroin, but she now feels inspired to do more research within her district to see what can be done to help local students fight the temptation.
“I don’t have a specific answer yet,” Harris said. “I don’t honestly know about the addictions in our high school per say, but I am curious about hearing more.”
Harris said she is looking to talk with school leaders to find out where the school district lies in the epidemic.
“I will be meeting with our superintendent this week before the board meeting,” Harris said. “I want to see if this is something we need to take up as a district.”
While nothing was set in stone during the summit, it seems that starting the discussion on such a broad level has put the idea of fighting opioids in the forefront of local leaders’ minds.
“You know sometimes we are protected by the bridge,” Woock said. “And we may not see all the signs in Gig Harbor. But it’s something that we should be talking about.”