In Pierce County, signs of hope amid the opioid carnage

When it comes to drug-related crime and overdose deaths, Pierce County has some of the highest averages in the state. Progress on the opioid front was slow for a long time, in part because of inadequate coordination between government agencies, health care providers, law enforcement and non-profit organizations.

Multi-pronged approaches to this complex public health crisis are clearly the answer. It’s why last year Pierce County Councilman Derek Young and Tacoma City Councilman Conor McCarthy proposed the Tacoma-Pierce Opioid Task Force. Comprising a variety of stakeholders from addiction recovery specialists to law enforcement, the task force meets in committees throughout the year and will present its findings Friday at the 2nd annual summit held at Pacific Lutheran University.

Overdose-death tolls from opioids have now surpassed fatalities caused by car crashes, HIV and gun violence. In 2017, more than 700 Washingtonians died from such overdoses, and that doesn’t include non-fatal overdoses or fatal injuries caused by people under the influence of opioids.

And these drugs are killing our kids in record numbers. According to the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, the largest increase in heroin overdose deaths have occurred among young people ages 15 to 34.

With the increased use of the synthetic drug fentanyl, a drug 30 to 50 times stronger than pure heroin, fatalities are projected to rise.

We’re encouraged that U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Derek Kilmer are scheduled to attend the summit. Last year Cantwell authored legislation holding opioid manufacturers accountable for the misuse and abuse of prescription painkillers. Kilmer authored a bill providing $1.9 billion for a substance abuse block grant.

In a rare bipartisan accord last fall, President Trump signed a sweeping opioid bill that does everything from increasing access to addiction treatment to expanding research for nonaddictive pain-management alternatives. This last piece is critical for our Pierce County neighbors living with severe daily pain whose physicians are forcing them to “step down” opioid dosages.

On the state level, Gov. Jay Inslee has asked the Legislature for $30 million for the opioid crisis, including $1 million to create more facilities directed at women in recovery who are pregnant or parenting. We hope to see bipartisan support.

Young says money, or lack of it, is why more than half of Pierce County’s first responders don’t have access to Narcon, the overdose-reversing drug that’s saved countless people from death. We wouldn’t tolerate a fire department that didn’t have funds for hoses or ladders. How can life-saving drugs be less important?

Still, city and county government should be recognized for a serious commitment to combating the opioid problem:

The local health department now requires pharmaceutical manufacturers to operate a drug takeback program. The county added a substance-use function to the 211 mental health phone line, increased the Drug Addiction Recovery Team and filed a lawsuit more than a year ago demanding more accountability from pharmaceutical companies.

The Tacoma Fire Department is piloting a “safe station” program where people can seek treatment, including access to low-barrier buprenorphine, a drug that treats opiate addiction. Jail inmates within 30 days of release can also receive medically assisted treatment.

Marla Majors, the clinical director of Tacoma’s Recovery Café, meets with people seeking help for drug addiction, many of them homeless. She emphasizes that behind every statistic is a human being who may need something practical: a bus pass, access to showers, laundry facilities or a place to store belongings.

Majors says the road to recovery starts with dignity. She says moving past the stigma of addiction is often the most difficult hurdle.

Her work characterizes the community-wide dialogue — and signs of hope — offered by the Tacoma-Pierce County Opioid Task Force.