Opinion | Understanding America’s Deadly Addiction: The Opioid Epidemic

By Kevin Steele, Kelly Canally-Brown and Adrienne Gavern-Tomlinson

According to the National Institute of Health, 115 people in the United States die every day by overdosing on opioids. That’s 42,000 people who died of overdose in 2016 — more than car crashes, shootings or suicide.

This crisis caused by opioids, which includes prescription pain relievers like oxycontin, heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl, is one of the most serious public health issues of our time, affecting the social and economic welfare across the country.

In Montgomery County, the number of overdose deaths is equally staggering. In 2016, 249 people died of overdose, and in 2017, 245 people died, each leaving behind a family grappling to understand how this is happening to them, while grieving their lost loved one. Increasingly, the overdose death numbers are being driven by fentanyl, which is 40 to 50 times stronger than heroin but looks the same to the naked eye.

In Montgomery County, we are combatting this epidemic in every conceivable way. We are saving hundreds of people from overdosing each year through the use of naloxone — the opioid reversal drug that can pull someone out of overdose death if administered in time. All police cars and ambulances throughout Montgomery County are equipped with naloxone.

We are fighting to cut off supply. The district attorney’s office along with local law enforcement are targeting drug dealers who are peddling these poisons, investigating and arresting physicians providing prescriptions to addicts and dealers, and investigating all overdoses as potential homicides and charging the dealer when the evidence supports it.

We are collecting unwanted or expired medications through Drug Take Back Days and MedReturn boxes, collecting and safely disposing of more than 50,000 pounds of drugs since the program began in 2010. In August, the DA’s office extended the reach of the program by launching a Drug Take Back Mobile-Mini Cooper by taking the collection effort to wherever people congregate.

We are working with the courts on alternative programs, like Montgomery County’s highly successful Drug Court, to help those addicted who commit a crime to get the help they need in lieu of prison.

And there is a necessary education component, teaching adults and our county’s students about the dangers of drugs and addiction.

Studies show that prescription drugs can be the pathway into addiction. The Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS) — a survey administered to youth in participating schools throughout the commonwealth — anonymously surveys students about their attitudes, knowledge, behaviors and experiences regarding the use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs as well as other pressing issues.

The study shows that the prescription drug most frequently used by students in this county was prescription narcotics, with 3.9 percent of students indicating lifetime usage.

Students often believe these substances are safer than illegal drugs because they are prescribed by a doctor and dispensed by a pharmacist. This is troubling given the adverse health consequences related to prescription drug abuse: physiological and psychological addiction, physical dependence and the possibility of overdose.

While it is critical to find ways to concretely prevent opioid deaths, it is just as essential to focus on the way we address drug and alcohol issues across a continuum that includes prevention, early intervention, treatment and recovery services.

Through the use of evidence-based curriculum our community can provide education and skill development in areas shown to be associated with initial use. These areas include emotional awareness and expression, relationships and bonding, communication, decision making and problem-solving. Through the use of both drug education and life skill development the goal is to increase the adolescent’s protective factors, which are major predictors of drug and alcohol use.

The opioid crisis is real and pervasive, affecting all corners of Montgomery County and the Philadelphia region. Learn more by joining us at a JFCS panel discussion on the opioid epidemic, hosted by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, on Oct. 23 at The Barbara and Harvey Brodsky Enrichment Center in Bala Cynwyd. We will take a closer look at policies, resources, and the latest data about the opioid epidemic on the national, state, and community level.

Visit jfcsphilly.org for more information.

Kevin Steele is the Montgomery County district attorney, Kelly Canally-Brown is the director of programs and services for Family Services of Montgomery County and Sarah Waxman is a Jewish Family and Children’s Service family life educator.