Top 10 Newsmakers No. 4: Battling the opioid crisis

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Because of its continued impact on the local community, the issue of prescription opioid drug abuse has for the second year in a row made the Cleveland Daily Banner’s list of Top 10 Newsmakers for the year.

In 2018, many in the community continued the previous year’s efforts to raise awareness of the problem of opioid addiction and to address it. However, those keeping tabs on the local opioid crisis say there is still a ways to go.

“I have not seen a decline in opioid abuse in the local community,” said Bill Cherry, director of the 10th Judicial District Drug & Violent Crime Task Force. “The problem is much the same as it was at the start of 2018.”

Cherry noted efforts to educate the medical community and the public on the dangers of misusing opioids, paired with state legislation affecting the availability of these drugs in certain cases, has led to a decrease in opioid use.

“This has led to an increase of heroin use. A high percentage of the heroin the Drug Task Force has seized contains fentanyl, which makes the drug more dangerous for the user and first responders,” Cherry said. “The opioid problem is far from over. The Drug Task Force and other law enforcement see this everyday as they investigate criminal activity and respond to the many overdose incidents that occur.”

Reba Terry, executive director of ATS The Bridge, said she has continued to hear stories of many individuals grappling with addiction, and this has led to some far-reaching consequences.

“ATS” stands for “Awareness, Treatment and Sustainability,” and leaders with the organization are among those paying attention to how opioid drugs affect families and promoting pathways to recovery for those ensnared by addiction.

“I think the personal impact on our families is definitely there,” said Terry. “Families are being torn apart by addiction to opioids.”

Terry said she has been told many stories of how local children are seeing their parents use drugs. This has in some cases led to the parents being sentenced to jail time and the children being placed with families or in foster care.

She cited as an example 8-year-old Maclane “Mac” Burrell, whose parents Julie and Will Burrell are recovering opioid addicts. The family shared their story with the Cleveland Daily Banner this year.

At one point, the couple lost custody of Mac and his siblings and went to jail on drug-related charges. The parents have served their time, have been reunited with their children and have been working honest jobs. However, the family is still reeling from the consequences of the drug use.

“Using opioids — it makes you feel better. It makes you feel good, really, which is why people get addicted,” Julie Burrell said. “But golly, just don’t do it. … It’s not worth it. It’s absolutely not worth it.”

Terry said the foster care system has become “overwhelmed” because of the opioid crisis, and “they have more children in custody than they have homes where they can place them.”

She added the prevalence of opioid addiction is also leading to jails becoming more crowded, and housing an increased number of inmates comes at a cost to taxpayers.

Opioid addictions have also affected the local economy, Terry said. Some of the effects have included lost workplace productivity, increased healthcare costs and higher employee turnover rates.

“I’ve talked to several employers who simply have trouble finding employees who do not use drugs and can pass their drug screens,” Terry said.

But the losses resulting from opioid use have been more than just economic. This year, local mother Rachel Goins told the Cleveland Daily Banner how her 24-year-old son, Mason Crisp, died from an opioid overdose.

Goins channeled her grief into helping ATS The Bridge plan an event held at Greenway Park in September called “Light the Night.” The event included several speakers who addressed the need to help those facing addiction.

Among the speakers were Cleveland Mayor Kevin Brooks, Bradley County Sheriff Steve Lawson, Cleveland Police Chief Mark Gibson, 10th Judicial District Attorney Stephen Crump and more.

“We need to show the light of this crisis,” Brooks said. “We need to lock our arms in support for the families and children in crisis.”

This was one of several community events hosted by area organizations and churches to highlight the problem of opioid drug abuse and get people to start thinking about solutions.

At another event, an Opioid Epidemic Summit held in February at the Museum Center at Five Points, Crump urged the community to make the “Not One More” commitment, a commitment to ensuring nobody else dies of a drug overdose.

Crump spoke of the need to “save this generation” and explained said there is “a continuum of opioid use” that affects 1 million Tennesseans, or 1 in 7 people who live in the state. He said 1.3 opioid prescriptions are written for every person in Bradley County, and last year 7.8 million opioid prescriptions were written in Tennessee.

“The thing we have to understand is that opioids do not cure any condition,” Crump said. “They don’t make anything better; they just make you think it’s better.”

Throughout this year’s political election cycles, candidates on both the local and state levels said many residents had expressed concerns about the prevalence of opioid addiction throughout the state.

These concerns remained despite state legislators passing “Tennessee Together,” a multifaceted plan made up of specific legislation, $30 million in funds through the proposed 2018-19 budget and other executive actions to battle opioids.

“Legislative solutions in Tennessee Together include limiting the supply and dosage of opioid prescriptions, with reasonable exception and an emphasis on new patients, as well as education for elementary and secondary schools through revisions to the state’s health education academic standards,” said state Rep. Dan Howell (R-Georgetown), who represents District 22.

On multiple occasions in 2018, law enforcement officials such as Lawson and Gibson said they were committed to doing what they could to address the opioid problem by getting illegal drug traffickers off the streets.

“Our law enforcement do an incredible job and risk their lives daily to make our community better,” Terry said.

Terry also praised the efforts of local emergency responders who have had to address everything from car accidents involving impaired drivers to fatal drug overdoses.

The 10th Judicial District’s Recovery Court program led by Judge Andrew Freiberg is also doing a good job helping some recovering drug addicts get back on track, said Terry. The Recovery Court saw a record number graduates during ceremonies held Dec. 11. A similar Juvenile Recovery Court program led by magistrate Ashley Gaither has also seen results.

Despite this progress, Cherry and Terry noted there is still much to be done to lessen the future effects of the opioid crisis.

“What is and should continue to be done to address the issue is education, and preventing access,” Cherry said. “Prevention is the best way to deal with an issue like addiction. Prevention is accomplished by educating our youth and changing the culture to view opioids as dangerous and not worth the risk.”

Terry said ATS The Bridge takes education seriously, and the organization has been visiting an increasing number of schools to speak to children and teens about the importance of making good decisions when it comes to drugs.

Cherry also noted the work of area law enforcement continues to play an important role, since targeting those dealing drugs can help in “lowering the supply” and keeping prescription drugs out of the hands of those who do not need them.

“Harsh and mandatory penalties are necessary to separate those that bring death into our communities from the law abiding citizens,” Cherry said. “Law enforcement continues to investigate crimes involving opioid activity and while resources are limited the group effort by the various departments have made an impact.”

Terry also said more work needs to be done to help those who are already battling addiction by providing better access to mental health and drug rehabilitation services. She estimates “only about 10 percent” of those who need treatment for mental health and addiction issues actually get it.

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