The wind and rain didn’t keep a crowd of almost 100 from showing up at Edmonds Community College’s Woodway Hall for the last in a series of forums on the growing epidemic of opioid abuse in our community, sponsored by the Snohomish Health District.
Welcoming remarks were provided by Edmonds Community College Chief of Security Dan Guerrero, Edmond Police Chief Al Compaan and Lynnwood Police Chie Tom Davis. Citing “589 new users each day” in the U.S., Guerrero call opioid abuse “a national crisis” that we must address. Compaan talked of how opioid abuse has escalated to “an unprecedented level,” and Davis cited his department’s new Community Health and Safety Unit and instituting Naloxone emergency overdose training for all.
Sponsored by the Snohomish Health District and Snohomish County Human Services, the forum was all about “sharing information and not assigning blame,” said 21st District Rep. Strom Peterson (D – Edmonds), who moderated the event. “Heroin and opioid abuse is a crisis in our community,” he added, “and becoming informed is the first step in making a difference.”
The first speaker was Dr. Gary Goldbaum of the Snohomish Health District, who outlined the history and dimensions of the problem.
“So how did it get this bad?” he asked. “Our addiction problem is rooted in the well-intentioned decision made in 2000 by the medical community to aggressively treat pain with prescription opioids. Doctors were encouraged to prescribe drugs like oxycodone to patients complaining of any kind of pain, often with long-term refill approval.”
The result: Patients increasingly abused and became addicted to these drugs, and overdose death rates rose. To address this, in 2010 doctors began to tighten up on prescriptions, and drug companies reformulated their products to make them less easy to abuse.
“Initially, this resulted in a decrease in opioid overdose deaths, but left dependent and addicted patients out in the cold,” he explained. “Coincidentally, at this same time cheap, potent heroin began pouring across our borders, and many turned to it as an alternative way to feed their dependency. And heroin overdose deaths shot up. Today on average one person per day dies of a heroin overdose in Washington state.”
Listing the various prescription and street opioid drugs, Goldbaum pointed out that regardless of source, they all affect the body by binding to “reward” sites in our central nervous system and producing feelings of intense pleasure and euphoria.
Additionally, they suppress physical pain, and the more you take, the less pain you feel. The body quickly becomes dependent, at which point if you stop taking them you get “very sick, very quickly,” he said. The only solution is to take more of the drug. Taking too much leads to overdose, characterized by shallow breathing, weak heartbeat, pupils contracting to a pinpoint, and unconsciousness. Breathing will stop, and the victim literally suffocates.
“At this point, naloxone becomes a real life-saver,” he stressed. “Naloxone rapidly displaces the narcotic from the central nervous system binding sites, and an overdose victim that was unconscious and barely breathing wakes up and literally comes back to life.
“But I want to be clear that naloxone is not a cure for addiction,” he continued. “It can save the life of an overdose victim, but that’s just the beginning. Long-term solutions require a meaningful mix of reducing access to drugs, building healthy, resilient families, supporting syringe exchange and methadone maintenance programs, counseling and social services.”
Goldbaum was followed by Cleo Harris, addiction treatment specialist with Snohomish County Human Services, who addressed how addiction begins.
“We’re all human, and part of being human is that we don’t want to hurt,” she began. “Just look at how we’re bombarded with drug ads. No matter what ails you, there’s a medication for it. It all builds a toxic mindset that we can medicate our way out of anything. And it’s this mindset that leads many into addiction and death.”
But getting out of addiction is hard. “Withdrawal is like the flu times 100,” she explained. “It’s five or more days of pure hell, with vomiting, chills, diarrhea and vomiting. And even after this passes there’s months of anger, mood swings and sleep problems as the body tries to heal. And always there’s the memory in the back of your mind of that one perfect high, and the conviction that just one little fix will recapture that and take all the pain away. And you relapse.
“But you don’t have to go back out,” she continued. “Community connections, 12-step groups, treatment programs, and the array of available social services can help addicts transition into productive lives.”
Next up were Cdr. Steve Rider and Sgt. Cole Langdon of the Lynnwood Police Department. A member of the South Snohomish County Narcotics Task Force, Rider has been on the enforcement end of the addiction problem for the past 25 years.
“Back when I started, our solution was enforcement and arrest,” he said. “But we’ve learned that we simply can’t arrest and prosecute our way out of this. Addiction is a complex community problem, and needs a multi-faceted approach that combines traditional enforcement with social services, medical treatment and community involvement.”
As a case in point, Langdon explained how the innovative Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program is getting help to addicts before they enter the justice system. “When we apprehend someone who clearly has a drug problem that has led to them getting into trouble, we can take the opportunity right then to plug them into appropriate services and get them engaged before prosecution. We’ve had great success turning lives around this way.”
Following Langdon was Debbie Warfield, who shared her personal journey with her son’s battle with addiction, a battle he ultimately lost when he died of an overdose in 2012 at only 24 years old.
Lindsey Greinke, a recovering addict, shared a very different kind of personal story. Founder of Hope Soldiers, an army of people from all walks of life dedicated to helping people in need connect with the services and the help they need, her message is simple: We all own the problem, we all need to be part of the solution, and individuals do make a difference.
The forum concluded with a question-and-answer session moderated by Peterson, after which he encouraged the audience to stay involved, call and write their elected officials, and let them know that support for programs that address addiction problem are needed.
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel