The opiate epidemic is viciously clutching communities throughout the United States, but one of the hardest hit areas is Tennessee.
In 2014, 1,263 Tennesseans died from opiate overdoses - more than the number of people killed in car accidents. The same thing occurred in 2007, according to a White House report on the epidemic.
Although 8 percent of Tennessee residents reported using illicit drugs in the last month, the same as the national average, in 2007 the drug-induced death rate was nearly 25 percent higher than the rest of the U.S. Opiates include a wide variety of drugs, including heroin and prescription pain killers, such as hydrocodone and oxycodone.
“I would like to think the rate of increase has slowed, but quite frankly the 2014 numbers don’t really allow me to say that,” David Reagan, chief medical officer of the Tennessee Department of Health, told The Tennessean. “It is at epidemic proportions in our state.”
The epidemic has touched every age group, race, religion and creed in Tennessee, but men and women ages 45-55 suffer the highest rates of overdose. Despite legislative efforts in 2012 to expand the information tracked by the state’s drug database and increase oversight on so-called pain management clinics, the number of deaths has continued to increase.
The epidemic has been so deadly that some are now focused on simply preventing fatalities rather than comprehensive drug reform. For example, in September 2015, CVS pharmacies made a drug called Naloxone, which can reverse the effects of a drug overdose, available over the counter in Tennessee.
“People need to be accountable for their behaviors. When they make bad choices, bad decisions, there are consequences, but again, if the person is dead, there’s nothing that can be done to help them,” E. Douglas Varney, the Commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, explained to WKRN.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) has warned that the usual prescription and illegal drugs aren’t solely to blame - there’s been an influx of more potent and potentially deadly opiates like fentanyl, which was originally created to help patients with breakthrough cancer pain.
“Previously, the General Assembly recognized the dangers surrounding heroin in Tennessee and enhanced the penalties for those dealing the drug,” said TBI Director Mark Gwyn in a 2016 news release regarding a major fentanyl bust in Cookeville. “With fentanyl being more potent, more dangerous, and potentially more deadly than heroin, it may be in the best interest for the state for lawmakers to consider a similar increase in penalties to further send a message to drug dealers, while protecting the citizens of Tennessee.”
The issue has become so serious even outside of Tennessee that President Obama has requested an extra $1.1 billion to fund opiate and heroin treatment, The Independent reported. The money would expand access to medication-assisted opiate addiction treatment, such as the methadone program, as well as work towards preventing addiction and opiate abuse.
As law enforcement, state and federal officials and private industries are investing money in an attempt to reign in the epidemic and mitigate its worst effects, the human toll continues to be the most costly.
Tony Lyons was addicted to opiates for years and overdosed three times, but he decided to sober up when his brother died of an overdose. "I came to visit him when he was here in Chattanooga in rehab and he actually relapsed with me and he got kicked out of the halfway house and got in the methadone clinic and five days later he was dead of a methadone overdose," Lyons told WTCV.
Reagan noted that most people don’t set out to become addicts and that their substance abuse issues often start when they’re prescribed pain killers after an accident or injury. Dr. Richard Soper of the Center for Behavioral Wellness in Nashville said he had one patient who took her first opiate when she fell down the stairs at age 11 - the medication was given to her by her grandmother.
"They never intended for that one incident to end up in dependency and addiction," Reagan said. "This wasn't their idea.”