Very few places in America have been harder hit by the opioid crisis than the state of Ohio. According to CDC data, the Buckeye State ranked second, only behind neighboring West Virginia, in overdose death rates per 100,000 residents in 2016. Over the last few years these mortality rates have continued to climb, despite new restrictions on prescription painkillers and better treatment for those struggling with addiction. As we seek to address this national health emergency it’s important to understand what is driving these overdose deaths and what can we do to stop it.
Opioid addiction in Ohio has brought public services to the brink and had a significant economic toll on the state. Police and fire departments are dealing with a spike in overdose-related calls, hospitals are receiving more patients than they can handle and even the state’s foster care system is feeling the strain as more and more children are separated from drug addicted parents who can no longer care for them. A new study from the Ohio State University meanwhile, finds that opioid epidemic costs the state $6.6 to $8.8 billion annually, roughly the same amount as the state’s education budget.
Much of the driving force behind Ohio’s recent spike in overdoses is powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil. Fifty times more potent than heroin, just 2 milligrams of fentanyl can be deadly while an amount of carfentanil equal to a single grain of salt is enough to kill.
As our government cracked down on the availability of legal prescription painkillers addicts turned to street drugs, manufactured by Chinese laboratories and smuggled in by Mexican drug cartels to get their fix. Many times these users do not know what they’re getting. Fentanyl is frequently used to lace other drugs, such as heroin, to provide a more powerful high and increase profits for the drug cartels.
Other times synthetic opioids are used to create knockoff pills such as “Mexican oxy” that are stamped and colored to look like a prescription drug but are actually a dangerous combination of heroin, morphine and fentanyl. Either way, the outcome is the same; drug users who don’t know what they’re dealing with and often pay the price with their lives.
The rate at which these illegal drugs have been crossing our border is truly alarming. A South Toledo man was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison for smuggling 13 pounds of fentanyl, enough to kill nearly 3 million people. At our Southern border meanwhile, the flow of synthetic opioids has turned into a tsunami. In 2013 border patrol agents sized just 2 pounds of fentanyl but by the end of 2017 that number had surged to over 1500 pounds, a 75,000 percent increase.
Despite these alarming numbers, much of the focus in addressing the opioid crisis to date has been on reducing the supply and usage of legal painkillers. While it is important to review prescribing methods and explore non-opioid alternatives for pain treatment, this does nothing to counter one of the main drivers of current overdoses: synthetic opioids.
Elected and appointed officials in the state have taken action to rein in this crisis. In May of 2016 the Ohio Departments of Health and Mental Health and Addiction Services launched a multi-media fentanyl public awareness campaign that warned Ohioans about the deadly drug. Senator Rob Portman has held hearings with a goal to crack down on the ease at which fentanyl is smuggled through the US Postal Service. Steps are being taken to combat this crisis but until a concerted nationwide effort is made to take synthetic opioids off the street, the death toll will continue to rise.
As Congress continues their oversight and investigation of the opioid crisis facing our country they would be wise to take note of the lessons learned in Ohio. The state is a bellwether in many ways, and unfortunately it is no different when it comes to the opioid crisis. Drug cartels continue to flood our streets with fentanyl so there must be a renewed effort at the local, state and federal level to stop the traffickers and dealers and take this poison off our streets. There are many lessons America can learn from the Buckeye States’ struggle with the opioid crisis but this is one of the most important.
• Bob McEwen represented Ohio in the United States House of Representatives for six terms.
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