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Work to make dip in opiate deaths start of a long trend

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

On the surface at least, preliminary numbers from Trumbull County health officials offer a glimmer of hope that our community at last may be cracking at the edges of the drug and opioid epidemic that has escalated to frightening heights over the past decade.

The number of people who died or survived overdoses in January and February of this year in the county declined from 118 in 2017 to 90 this year, the Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board reported late last week.

Trumbull County Coroner Dr. Humphrey Germaniuk sees validity in those numbers, noting that his office has seen fewer and fewer deaths in the early months of this year.

Though the new statistics provide some cause for optimism toward taming the monstrous plague, it provides absolutely no reason to let down our collective guard. Indeed, the fight against drug overdoses in general and opiate overdoses and deaths in particular must continue and intensify.

As Dr. Germaniuk said, “Let’s hope the trend continues, but no one knows what tomorrow will bring.”

The coroner’s caution is well founded. The encouraging estimates could be nothing more than a short-term anomaly. Throughout the decade-long epidemic, there have been peaks and valleys in the ferocity of the plague.

But even if the figures do represent the start of an encouraging long-term trend, they still are shocking in their intensity and illustrate the dire need to continue and expand existing collaborative efforts to lessen the scope of unintentional drug-overdose deaths, which today remains the No. 1 cause of death of all adults under 50.

Fortunately, a number of fresh initiatives from the federal government indicate this nation is not shying away from ratcheting up resources to fight the plague head-on. The vast majority of them – with one notable exception – should be embraced and advanced.

RYAN AND PORTMAN’S CARA 2.0

Prime among them is a responsible bill from Tim Ryan of Howland, who represents the bulk of the Mahoning Valley in the U.S. House of Representatives.

He announced last week that he has introduced, along with support from some of his Republican peers, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act 2.0. The measure would allocate an additional $800 million in new funding to fight prescription and opioid abuse.

The bill would also increase criminal penalties on manufacturers that don’t report suspicious orders or keep proper diversion protocols in place and provide first-responder training and fund expansion of specialized courts to treat veterans.

It stands as the son of the original CARA, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Rob Portman several years ago that has been credited with improving access to long-term treatment for hundreds of thousands of addicts around the country.

This update of CARA, for which Portman has introduced a Senate version, puts special emphasis on targeting those who’ve fallen into addiction by way of prescription pain pills.

CARA 2.0 also targets creation of more aggressive national anti-drug awareness campaigns and assistance to those in the front lines of the epidemic, namely police, emergency medical technicians and other first responders to overdose cases.

For his part, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, is aggressively pushing for full funding for his recently passed INTERDICT Act, to give Customs and Border Protection agents the tools to detect and stop deadly opiate fentanyl at the border. President Donald J. Trump recently signed that initiative into law.

The president himself this week also laid out a broad plan for battling the opiate epidemic, the bulk of which mirrors the types of initiatives that Brown, Portman, Ryan and others have been advocating for Ohio and other hard-hit areas of the nation.

On Monday in New Hampshire, a state with a rate of OD deaths that nears Ohio’s record levels, Trump called for a multi-pronged offensive. It would include reducing the supply of illicit drugs with better interdiction and tougher penalties, reducing opioid prescriptions and overall demand and expanding access to treatment and recovery tools like the overdose-reversing drug naloxone.

But one aspect of the president’s plan – giving drug dealers death sentences – strikes us and many others as extreme misguided overreach. If enacted, we’re certain it would be mired in years of litigation and debate over its constitutionality and impact on civil liberties.

We concur with Ryan, who called the capital-punishment proposal “extremely dangerous policy. . . . I am all for punishing drug dealers, but I’m not for pushing the death penalty.”

Excluding that extreme idea, we look for realization of many of the new initiatives in the days, weeks and months ahead. With continued vigilance, the promising trend in Trumbull County this year can lengthen and spread throughout our state and nation.