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Opioid abuse shows little change

Officials pleased, but prepared for the worst

by Seth Mensing

The news from around the world can sometimes seem distant to people living in the Gunnison Valley, but one headline that has gotten attention locally is the epidemic of opioid addiction that’s swept some parts of the country in the last several years.

The epidemic got members of the Gunnison Valley League of Women Voters (LWV) wondering if the problem of increased opioid addiction or overdose had made its way to this part of the state. They found that the problem isn’t a big one relative to the community’s population size, and despite all the external forces the problem currently isn’t getting much worse.

According to the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment, opioid-related deaths in Colorado had increased steadily between 2000 and 2015, but showed a 6 percent drop in 2016.

In the Gunnison Valley, the abuse of opioid painkillers and hard drugs such as heroin have been a persistent, if small, problem, especially in the areas surrounding Crested Butte. Crested Butte chief marshal  Mike Reily sees the prevalence of drugs like heroin very closely correlated with the number of people in the valley, with cases increasing during high-traffic times.

The LWV also found that the Gunnison Valley Health System on a nearly weekly basis sees patients displaying overdose symptoms, although officials could not discuss details of those cases. Their research also turned up two overdose deaths in the county in the last year.

So while some of the problems related to opioid overuse do manifest in certain places at certain times in the valley, the degree to which opioid use is a problem hasn’t changed much, according to the LWV’s research. Study group member Sharon Cave told a gathering of the LWV on Tuesday, May 9, that the sheriff’s department reported a 1 percent increase over the last two years in cases related to illegal opioid use.

But the potential for a bigger problem has some local officials taking steps to prevent overdose deaths in the county. Cave said the sheriff’s office is now carrying Narcan, an increasingly common emergency treatment for opioid overdose, and she said deputies had used it.

Every year the Gunnison Valley chapter of the LWV chooses a topic with public policy implications to research. In the past they’ve explored medical marijuana and immigration issues and this year the group took it upon itself to take a closer look at opioid use and abuse in the Gunnison Valley.

The study group included Donna Nielsen, Sharon Cave, Ellen Harriman, Vikki Roach Archuleta and Rochelle Needham, each of whom spoke with local officials and professionals within certain sectors of the community, such as healthcare and law enforcement, to see if they noticed any change.

Nielsen, a former nurse, initially took umbrage at the idea that the medical community had somehow instigated the epidemic with the over-prescription of narcotics as painkillers. And while she did find articles that connected the current problems people are having with the advent of OxyContin (generic name oxycodone) in the mid-1990s, she suggested that the problems of opioid abuse had more to do with the abuser’s environment than the opioid.

She also suggested that the problem was just now becoming more acceptable on a societal level for reasons related to race and that the stigma associated with addiction has changed over the last two decades, with shift from the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s to the current abuse of opioids, which has disproportionately affected white, middle-class America.

But the problem the group repeatedly found wasn’t the over-prescription of painkillers so much as it was a problem accounting for the medication after it leaves the hospital and heads for the medicine cabinet. Once there, powerful and addictive pills can increase the risk of abuse, the group determined.

Study group member Ellen Harriman said Kimberly Behounek from the Center for Mental Health felt her offices are adequately staffed to deal with the problems of opioid addiction locally and agreed that addiction is a problem, albeit not a big one. But she felt strongly that pills left in medicine cabinets are a big public health issue that needs to be raised with the public and addressed. “It’s important to take care of the security of our own homes,” Harriman said.

There are currently several places in the valley where opioid painkillers can be safely disposed of, including at the Crested Butte Marshal’s Office and the Gunnison Police Department. Local pharmacies also occasionally offer times when customers can dispose of their unused prescriptions.

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