Next best moves in Ohio’s raging war on opiate abuse

A new report from the ohio Department of Health updates the widening scope of the state’s opiate-abuse epidemic and provides an eclectic set of comforting, concerning and alarming revelations.

There is some small comfort in the report’s findings that opioid-related prescriptions and deaths have actually declined in the state since 2010. Some 81 million fewer opioid solid doses were dispensed to Ohio patients in 2015 compared with 2010. In addition, prescription opiates accounted for only 21 percent of all unintentional drug overdose deaths in 2015 compared with nearly 27 percent in 2014.

Those declines represent the product of increased oversight by the state medical and pharmacy boards and an aggressive crackdown on so-called “pill mills” that obtain and dispense the narcotics in a laissez-faire too-few-questions-asked fashion.

DEATH TOLL HITS RECORD

That progress, however, does little to mitigate the serious concern that heroin, fentanyl and other opiates continue to suck the life out of an increasing number of state residents. In 2015, for example, unintentional drug overdoses claimed the lives of 3,050 Ohioans, the highest number in recorded Ohio history. It also represents a disturbing 18 percent jump from the 2,531 such deaths just one year earlier.

Even more alarming is the skyrocketing number of deaths tied to fentanyl – an opiate about 100 times more potent than morphine – often mixed with heroin. Fentanyl-related overdose deaths more than doubled between 2014 and 2015 – from 503 to 1,155.

The Mahoning Valley unfortunately finds itself in the nexus of the plague. Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties all rank above state averages for opiate abuse, according to a ranking in the report released last week. Collectively, the three counties recorded 189 unintentional drug overdose deaths last year compared with only 42 in 2003.

In short, the report sounds a clarion call that more awareness, more treatment, more resources and more commitment by all parties affected by the plague – which means virtually everyone – must be mustered if we hope to make any major dents in the epidemic’s crippling grip on our state.

OHIO IS ‘HOTBED’

That grip is tight. According to Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, who has been on the front lines of the heroin-opiate offensive in the Buckeye State, Ohio has established itself as “a hotbed” for opiate abuse.

Though the reasons for that reputation are unclear, the reaction to it must be clear, forceful and multi-pronged.

The lieutenant governor, meeting with The Vindicator’s editorial board Wednesday, appealed for a stronger coordinated commitment encompassing medical professionals, law-enforcement officers and public officials on the state and local levels.

At the state level, the Ohio House can act expeditiously this month to give its seal of approval to legislation introduced by Sen. John Eklund of Munson Township, R-18th, and passed last spring that includes more controls aimed at enhancing oversight, addressing the issue of over-prescribing opiods and expanding access to naloxone, a proven antidote for heroin overdoses.

Public officials also must continue to work to seek out funding and grant opportunities for expansion of short- and long-term treatment facilities. Too many would-be survivors die because waiting lists for rehabilitation and help are far too long.

In addition, caregivers, detox specialists, coaches, teachers, faith-based leaders and others can team up as advocates for those suffering the debilitating effects of addiction and in strengthening awareness campaigns of the potential dangers of opiate experimentation.

The fight also must be waged on an intensely personal level. Parents and trusted authority figures to young people should have serious talks about the potentially deadly impact that a life of illicit drug use too often creates.

Data indicate that children who have been urged to avoid opiates by respected adults are considerably less likely to use and abuse.

To be sure, such a well coordinated and aggressive fight will be well worth the effort if it succeeds in reducing the monstrous emotional, societal, financial and human toll that opiate abuse extracts so heavily on so many throughout our region and state.

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