Just say yes to the war on opioid abuse

Guest Commentary by Matt Rexroad | Daily Democrat | July 06, 2017 –

In 1994, I trained for military school by swimming. When I did a flip turn in the pool, I felt immediate pain as I pushed off the wall. My hip and right leg felt like they were on fire. Because I needed to finish my year-end law exams, I waited for about two weeks to have surgery to repair a ruptured disc in my back. The pain for those two weeks was constant and debilitating.

I cannot say that I approve of people taking illegal drugs for pain relief, but that experience made me understand it. I had health insurance and a job where I sat at a desk. I had the surgery and returned to training six months later. What if I could not afford the surgery or to take weeks off of work because I loaded heavy equipment, worked under cars, or moved furniture all day?

I don’t know how it would have turned out, but it would not have been good. I would have become an angry person. I was desperate to get pain relief and would have been willing to do almost anything to deal with it.

The latest frontline in the failed war on drugs focuses on opioids. These legal prescription pain-killers and their illegal variations are devastating communities throughout the country, especially in states like Ohio but also in California. Just saying “no” does not deal with the real policy issue. Ignoring it does an even greater disservice.

Nearly 2,000 Californians died of opioid overdoses in 2015, according to the California Department of Public Health. Montgomery County, Ohio, has a population of 500,000 people and is on pace this year to have 800 people die from opioid overdose. Let those numbers sink in.

We are not immune in California; nearly 4,000 visits were made to emergency rooms, along with more than 4,000 hospitalizations for opioid overdoses. It’s a wonder there weren’t more, considering 24.4 million opioid prescriptions were written in California in 2015. That’s 24.4 million prescriptions in a state of 39 million people.

Especially hard hit are rural Northern California areas like Lake County. When rural areas of the state are constantly claiming that health care is difficult to find, these areas also seem to have plenty of access to opioids.

While Yolo County is not nearly as bad as some, it still suffers a higher rate of opioid overdose deaths (6.47 per 100,000 residents) than the statewide average (4.73/100,000). The overdose death rate in the Esparto area is more than five times the state average. It’s more than three times higher than the state average in the 95695 zip code that includes part of Woodland.

Three residents in Davis, West Sacramento, and Woodland overdosed on counterfeit prescription pain pills containing the opioid fentanyl — two of them dying, according to an April 2016 Yolo County press release. Regionally, 53 people overdosed and 13 of them died, consuming what they believed to be Norco, a commonly abused prescription painkiller. But the pills actually contained fentanyl, which is 100 times more powerful than heroin.

Stopping illegal opioids like heroin from entering the country over the Mexican border is also essential. Synthetic drugs like fentanyl are created in China, land in Mexico, and then come north to the United States. The immigration debate is raging right now based on changes or proposed changes in federal policy. We can debate about who is let into this country, but we really should not have to debate whether these drugs are allowed to enter the country. The fact is that this problem happens in our backyard, and in many other backyards across the country.

As we’ve learned over the past three decades, there is no easy answer for the nation’s drug problem. It might even get worse when recreational marijuana begins to be sold in California in January. But we can and we must do more than just say “no”. It is a law enforcement problem, but it is also an amazingly complex public health problem that needs attention nationally.

Matt Rexroad has served on the Yolo County Board of Supervisors since 2007 and previously served as Mayor of Woodland.

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