The past year, 2016, will set a record for the number of drug overdose deaths in the St. Louis region. While still collecting data, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse – St. Louis Area is expecting a total of 630-640 deaths from overdoses in the past year, most of them opioid related and most impacting younger St. Louisans.
Opiate addiction and overdose are issues wracking cities across the country. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 580 people initiate heroin use each day in the United States and 78 people die each day from an opioid-related overdose.
For the past two years, the NCADA has tried to draw greater public attention to such issues with jarring PSAs that play locally during the Super Bowl. This year, the NCADA, in partnership with the DEA, will air two such PSAs — this time targeting parents and encouraging them to lock away prescription pain medications.
On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh discussed the continuing opioid epidemic, local efforts to tamp down opioid abuse, the Super Bowl PSAs and the role prescription pain medications play.
Howard Weissman, the Executive Director of the NCADA – St. Louis Area, said that about 80 percent of heroin users begin with the misuse of prescription opioids.
“It’s a gateway to heroin use,” Weissman said. “Now, only a small percentage of prescription drug users will go on to heroin, but the majority of those who start using heroin started with opioids.”
Weissman said there’s a massive reservoir of unused opioids in St. Louis and across the country. Without finding ways to eradicate that reservoir, the opioid epidemic will not be reined in.
Karin Caito, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency, said the agency has a twice-a-year “take back initiative” designed to give people a place to empty out their medicine cabinets and safely dispose of prescription drugs. The agency has also implemented a “360 strategy,” that combines a law enforcement, community outreach and prevention approach to help cities dealing with the opioid epidemic.
St. Louis is one of four cities identified to combat the issue in such a way because of its high amount of overdoses and violent crime, Caito said.
On the medical side, Dr. Ed Ferguson, an emergency physician with Mercy, said that doctors are realizing the impact prescribing opioids has on patients. He said doctors really have no formal education on pain treatment aside from opioid methods.
There is some cause for hope in the middle of the crisis, though. Weissman said a recent Monitoring the Future survey that surveys drug attitudes among 45,000 students across the country, found that eighth grade students are using elicit drugs and tobacco at historically low levels. The prevention problem now lies with those in their 20s, 30s, 40s and older.
What’s to be done?
“If you ask anyone in law enforcement, they’ll tell you: ‘we cannot arrest everyone out of this problem.’ If you ask those in the treatment field, they’ll tell you: ‘we’re not going to treat our way out of this problem,’” Weissman said. “So if you cannot arrest your way out and you cannot treat your way out, the way forward must include a much stronger emphasis on prevention, on intervening much further upstream.”
Weissman hopes to see a massive public education campaign against opioid abuse come about, much like successful tobacco public awareness campaigns. Those were funded by a penalty paid by tobacco companies. Weissman hopes to see prescription companies step up to the plate and fund such public education about the drugs they put on the market.
Weissman also calls for the establishment of prescription drug monitoring program. Missouri is the only state in the United States that does not have one.
“A PDMP prevents doctor shopping — or going to multiple physicians for multiple prescriptions,” Weissman said, mentioning it could sometimes be inadvertent, but such a program could help identify those trying to work the system to get more prescription pain medication.
Likewise, Weissman took aim at a 1965 law called the “Medicaid Inpatient Mental Disease Exclusion Rule,” which limits the size of inpatient substance abuse treatment facilities to 16 beds in order to receive Medicaid support. Larger treatment centers that were able to keep patients for longer might be able to help treatment last longer.
For those immediately in the grip of opioid addiction and at risk of an overdose, Naloxone, known as Narcan or Evisio, became available in Missouri without a few months ago. It is a medication that temporarily reverses the effects of opioids on the central nervous system, Ferguson said. The price is pretty steep, but NCADA has a significant supply it can give families or people suffering from addiction at no cost. Call NCADA at 314-962-3456 for more information or visit their website for more information.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.