Matt Driscoll

As opioid epidemic rages, Tacoma leaders head east in search for answers

OxyContin, in 80 mg pills, in a 2013 file image. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is issuing strong warnings about the combined use of such opioid medications along with benzodiazepines, a class of anti-anxiety medications.
OxyContin, in 80 mg pills, in a 2013 file image. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is issuing strong warnings about the combined use of such opioid medications along with benzodiazepines, a class of anti-anxiety medications. Los Angeles Times

A three-day trip to Boston will not solve Tacoma and Pierce County’s opioid crisis.

But according to Mayor Victoria Woodards, it could go a long way toward helping the region deal with the growing public health epidemic.

Next month, Woodards and a delegation of city and county officials will head to the East Coast to take part in the National League of Cities Mayors’ Institute on Opioids.

Tacoma was one of six cities from across the country chosen to participate, Woodards announced during last week’s State of the City address, and the only city west of the Mississippi to receive an invitation. The institute will pay all expenses for Woodards and City Councilman Conor McCarthy to attend the institute. County taxpayers will pick up airfare and lodging for two county officials to attend.

It’s potentially a big deal — with “potentially” being the key word because all that matters in a situation like this is results.

Organized through the NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families and its Center for City Solutions, the big idea is to gather mayors and the teams they assemble for frank discussions about what works and what doesn’t when jurisdictions grapple with the local impacts of the opioid epidemic.

A collection of experts in the field also will be on hand to deliver guidance. Most importantly, the opportunity will be followed by 12 months of ongoing, customized support as the cities attempt to implement the things they’ve learned.

If all goes as planned, Woodards and her team will return to Tacoma with a toolbox full of new ideas.

New ideas could go a long way, for obvious reasons. According to recent data released by the Centers for Disease Control, more than 42,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses in 2016 — a 28-percent increase from the year before.

Locally, between 2012 and 2016, Pierce County experienced a rate of 9.9 opioid overdose deaths per 100,000 residents, compared to the state average of 9.6, according to a report from the state Department of Health.

In 2016 alone, there were 694 opioid-related deaths statewide with 81 of those deaths coming in Pierce County.

“As of right now we’re sort of feeling our way around this and trying to figure it out,” said Pierce County Councilman Derek Young, who last year helped to convene a Pierce County opioid task force. The task force is in the process of fine-tuning a long list of recommendations and policy strategies for future implementation, Young said.

Young expects people soon will start to see tangible results from the task force, which has been at work for seven months. But he and McCarthy, who also has been heavily involved in the task force, admitted that the process has been slow.

In government, perhaps that’s to be expected, but it can also be frustrating given the seriousness of the situation and the lives being lost every day.

“There’s no rulebook. We don’t really have a guide that says, ‘Here’s what you do next,’” Young said of the regional response to the opioid epidemic.

“(Being chosen to participate in the Mayors’ Institute on Opioids is) pretty nice recognition of what we’re trying to accomplish here. Unfortunately, it’s also a recognition of the need.”

So how big of an impact can an exercise like the Mayors’ Institute on Opioids possibly make?

That’s the million-dollar question — and it’s one that will remain unanswered until we move beyond press releases and promises.

Now, admittedly, when government types start talking about things like “practical, solutions-oriented discussions and peer-to-peer learning opportunities,” my eyes tend to glaze over.

Still, when Woodards’ office used those words last week while announcing Tacoma’s selection as one of the six cities chosen participate in the Mayors’ Institute on Opioids, I stopped and took note.

Why? Because the truth is that this is a problem in desperate need of new, innovative solutions, and anything that might help us get there is worth trying — even if it’s heavy on the government jargon.

"This is a really complex issue. There's no magic bullet. It’s not like we're going to go back to Boston, spend three days, and then two months later, 'Ah, we have solved the problem,'" Woodards said.

"But I have to have faith. That might be that Pollyanna, sunshine attitude, but I've got to have faith that we may not find the solution, but we’ve got to find something that's part of the solution. We have an obligation to get up every time and try."

McCarthy was equally realistic.

“I think it’s a great thing,” McCarthy said of the opportunity.

Then the councilman paused to gather his thoughts.

“I don’t want to downplay that this is important, and can help, because it will,” McCarthy continued.

“But there’s just a lot of work to be done.”

There most certainly is.

Matt Driscoll: 253-597-8657,, @mattsdriscoll