To address the rising incidence of heroin and opioid addiction and fatal overdoses in Arkansas, the Association of Arkansas Counties (AAC) has formed a five-member Opioid Task Force.
It includes Pulaski County Coroner Gerone Hobbs, Saline County Judge Jeff Arey, Union County Sheriff Ricky Roberts, Washington County Circuit Clerk Kyle Sylvester and Craighead County Treasurer Terry McNatt.
“The costs to our society are incredibly high and for counties, the societal impact directly impacts our bottom line in jail costs, clogged courtrooms and extra law enforcement on the streets,” AAC Executive Director Chris Villines said. “We know that if our counties stand together, we can respond to this crisis in an organized, cohesive fashion.”
The Centers for Disease Control issued a report in July that showed in 2016 Arkansas had an average opioid prescription rate of 115 per 100 people. It was second only to Alabama, which had an average of 121 opioid prescriptions per 100 people. Opioids are a class of drugs that includes the illegal drug heroin and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, as well as pain relievers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine and others available legally by prescription, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Opioids are highly addictive, with many users switching to heroin and fentanyl when their supply of prescription pain relievers run out. Opioid addiction affects all ages, races and ethnicities, socioeconomic groups.
The Task Force held its first meeting Monday (Oct. 9) at the AAC headquarters. Members discussed the opioid epidemic from nationwide, statewide and local perspectives. Specific topics included the success rate of the state’s drug take-back program, the pervasiveness of heroin and fentanyl in Arkansas, scheduled updates to the state’s prescription drug monitoring program, and local law enforcement’s and first responders’ lack of access to naloxone.
Naloxone is an opiate antagonist that reverses an opioid overdose and allows a person to breathe during an overdose. It gives a first responder time to seek lifesaving medical attention. The Task Force set two initial goals to create an educational program that will increase the public’s awareness of the dangers of opioids and to help first responders gain access to the training and naloxone they need to manage an opioid overdose.
In order to broaden the discussion, the AAC invited several state and municipal leaders to participate in the meeting.
“We believe a statewide focus is needed on this issue,” Villines said.
Arkansas State Drug Director Lane said naloxone and training on how to use it are essential tools for law enforcement officers to combat what he called “the number one drug death threat in the state of Arkansas.”
Lane announced Tuesday (Oct. 10) his agency has secured two federal grants to help provide training and naloxone to first responders in eight designated counties: Baxter, Crawford, Franklin, Garland, Marion, Scott, Sebastian, and Sharp. He said funding opportunities for other counties may become available in the future.
“The dangers of opioids are probably misrepresented because of the acceptance of prescription medication,” Lane said.